Afghanistan's 'Grand Canyon' drawing tourists, money

    10:54 AM, Mar 25, 2013   |    comments
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    BAND-E-AMIR, Aghanistan (CBS ) -- It's been called Afghanistan's Grand Canyon; 230 square miles of soaring cliffs and cascading lakes on the edge of the Hindu Kush Mountains. Band-e-Amir is Afghanistan's first national park.

    The landmines from decades of war are gone. The villagers who stripped the hills of brush for fuel and hunted the wildlife to near extinction for food, they have new jobs as official park rangers. Aji Zahir was one of the first. He says, "During Taliban many, many people come and hunt here."

    He and a dozen others like him are being paid to protect this place, a project funded by US AID. They watch for poachers, they look out for wildlife, they talk to tourists; many believe these waters have the power to heal.

    The ranger job comes with a uniform and a salary. Still, the idea took some getting used to; for generations these people have lived off the land. The concept of conservation didn't exist. Zahir says, "I think it is better now than before. It is because before these people before not understand what is national park."

    The biggest benefit so far is money. Tourist numbers have exploded from 900 a year to 6,000, almost all Afghans.

    The park is changing the economy of entire villages here. Farmers are renting out spare rooms and their donkeys to tourists; for the first time they're able to make a living off of these lakes.

    Marzia's family used to survive by collecting shrub brush from the hills for fuel. Now, they rent out a room to tourists for about $27 a night.

    She says for the first time her family is earning a good living. The villagers are starting to see another benefit; the park, and the land on its borders is coming back to life.

    Last summer, a Persian leopard, thought to be extinct in Afghanistan, was caught roaring at a remote camera on the park's edge. Naseem Sultani heads up the park ranger program for the Wildlife Conservation Society. Sultani says, "When we got down to the cameras we opened and suddenly we could see there was a Persian leopard, and I must tell you we start dancing you know? We were on the sky!"

    These days, the rangers are learning English. There are plans to build an airport nearby, so tourists can fly over the long and dangerous road from Kabul. Zahir says, "I hope this national park slowly, slowly makes this seem like in other countries."

    Safe enough to share this extraordinary landscape with the rest of world.

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