Forests and Wildlife in Central Asia

Tien-Shan Birch in Western Tien-Shan Mountains in Uzbekistan.

The World Wildlife Day (March 3) this year highlights the role of forests for the livelihood of humanity. UN celebrates this day under the theme: “Forest and Livelihoods: Sustaining people and planet”. Forests in Central Asia occupy only a small part of the territory but play an enormous role in providing multiple ecosystem services and not only for local communities. First of all, forests regulate climate and water cycles, ensure food, fibers, and habitats for people and abundant wildlife. Forest have cultural and spiritual values. They serve as recreational places. One of the most important roles of the forests, especially in the mountains, is relevant to the allocation of space for evolutionary processes. The richest and diverse fauna and flora are presented in the forests.

Forests play a crucial role in Central Asia. Their loss impacts wildlife and human livelihoods.

In 2003, forests in Kyrgyzstan covered area in 769.5 thousand ha, including coniferous forests 280.1 thousand ha, hardwood forest 34,400 ha (ash, maple, elm), softwood (birch, poplar, willow) 14,100 ha, others 98,300 ha (walnut, apple-tree, almond, apricot); shrubs 342,6 ha (Forests of Kyrgyzstan, 2003). In 2010, forests in Kyrgyzstan covered 1,123,200 ha or 5.6% of the total area of the country (FAO, 2010). According to the assessment prepared by UNECE-FAO in 2018 (Tsevs, 2018), 160,000 ha of forest were lost in Kyrgyzstan in the last 50 years. The total forest area in 2015 was 637,000 ha or 3.2% from the country’s area, including 590,000 ha primary forest and 47,000 ha planted forest (UNECE & FAO, 2019).

In the past (about 100 years ago), forests in Tajikistan covered about 25% of the country. However, many areas were cut off for the development of agriculture. In 2010, forests occupied around 410,000 ha (Kirchhoff & Fabian, 2010), but the statistic of forest dynamics were complicated due to lack of adequate data management. The total forest area (assessment of 2015) is evaluated in 412,000 ha or 2.9% of the country’s territory, including 297,000 primary forests, 103,000 ha planted forest, and 12,000 ha naturally regenerated forest (UNECE & FAO, 2019).  

The percentage of forest land in Uzbekistan is 7.3% (UNECE, 2015). At present, the total area of the State Forest Fund is 11,196.2 thousand ha or 25.2% of the total land area, including 7.2% of forest land (trees and shrubs). The State Forest Fund is comprised of desert land (81%), mountain lands (16%), valleys (2%), and tugai or river gallery forests (1%).  According to law, forests in Uzbekistan are state property and national wealth. All forests are an integral part of the State Forest Fund, except for protective planting, forest belts, urban forests, trees on farmland, and gardens. According to NBSAP (2015), desert and tugai are most degraded and need urgent recovery measures. The agroforestry (walnut, pistachio, almond, and fruit) planting partly compensates for the degradation of mountain forests. However, it is not enough for the recovery of lost forested areas.

Forests provide habitats for many animal species. The diversity of species and subspecies is the most rich in mountains and river valleys. Many species are “least concern” and can be found during short visits to forested areas. However, many species (especially large birds and mammals, beautiful butterflies) are rare and threatened and included in the national red lists and red books. Examples of local communities involved in conservation gave positive results in many countries. The most striking such examples are in Tajikistan, where many charismatic large mammal species recovered last decades due to community participation in protection and benefit sharing.

Flora is very rich in the region, and especially in the mountain areas and in the mountain forests. Only around Issyk-Kul Lake in Kyrgyzstan, the plant diversity is evaluated in 1,500 – 1,800 species. The plant diversity in the region is more than 5,000 species. And, in particular, due to this fact, the region is evaluated as one of the biodiversity hot-spots: The Mountains of Central Asia.

The conservation and recovery of species and ecosystems are results of the cooperation between state agencies and civil society: environmental NGOs, grassroot groups and academia.

Used Literature:

FAO, 2010. Capacity building for National Forest and Tree Resource Assessment and Monitoring in Kyrgzystan, Report, 19 p.

Kirchhoff & Fabian. (2010). Forestry sector analysis of the Republic of Tajikistan. GTZ/DED/CIM Regional Program “Sustainable use of natural resources in Central Asia”. Dushanbe, 2010. 56 p.

UNECE & FAO. (2019). Forest landscape restoration in the Caucasus and Central Asia. Paper 72, 66 p.

Used images are from author’s archive.

The “Bird of the Year 2021” in Kyrgyzstan

The Bearded Vulture’ portrait: an adult bird. Photo by Alexander Zhdanko

The Kyrgyzstan Wildlife Conservation Society looks for support to publish the new calendar of 2021 with the new selected “Bird of the Year-2021”. The Society publishes its annual calendars with bird images since 2006. Every year the members of the Society select one species of birds occurring in Kyrgyzstan as a symbol of the year. The bird selected serves also as a symbol of conservation campaign providing by KWCS members. Calendars are free of charge. They are disseminated by KWCS among schools, public organizations, NGOs and communities that to highlight the problems of birds and other wildlife conservation in Kyrgyzstan and engage society in the conservation. 

The last 2020 calendar was published with an image of the White-browed Tit-Warbler (Leptopoecile sophia), occurring in the montane juniper forests of Kyrgyzstan. The sponsor of this calendar was a Kyrgyz Express Post, issued last year the post stamp with an image of this fluffy and bright-painted passerine.

The Bearded Vulture or Lammergeier (Gypaetus barbatus) was selected as a bird of 2021. The Bearded Vulture is an amazing bird inhabiting the mountains of Kyrgyzstan. The bearded vulture is a species of scavenger bird that plays a specific role in ecosystems. Birds literally feed on the bones of dead animals and their guts – bone marrow. The bearded vulture has the ability to digest bones due to the high acidity of gastric juice. This scavenger cannot completely swallow large bones, so it picks up the bones of dead animals, flies with them into the air and throws them down onto the rocks. After several such throws, the bone breaks and the bearded vulture can swallow small pieces of bones with their nutritious content. Undigested bone remains are regurgitated by bearded vulture like pellets in owls – as small bone balls. And the bone marrow allows these scavengers to receive high-calorie nutrition, ensuring their survival in the hard mountain conditions. Specialization in feeding on the bones and other remains of dead animals has determined specific biological characteristics of this species. Bearded vultures nest at the end of the winter and in early spring. In January – March, they lay one or two eggs in a nest located on the ledges of steep cliffs, usually in hard-to-reach habitats. Mostly, the female incubates eggs; she spends about two months (52-55 days) in the nest before the chicks appear. Usually only one of them survives, since it can be difficult to feed two chicks in winter. Chicks appear at the end of February – March. But in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan, this is a time when the chances of finding food – the corpses and bones of dead animals – are highest.

The chick of bearded vulture is born completely naked, but quickly it overgrows with dark fluffy down, which protects it from a significant drop in day and night temperatures in the mountains. At first, caring parents do not leave the chick for a long time, warming it with their feathers and feeding it with semi-digested bone concentrate. By the end of winter – the beginning of spring, the chick is fully fledged and begins to fly out of the nest, accompanying the parents. It differs from adult birds in its very dark, almost completely black plumage. Bearded vultures glide low over the slopes of the mountains, looking out for the corpses and bones of animals killed or died in winter. They lift large bones high into the air and thrown down onto rocks to break them and gain access to internal soft content. In search of food, the bearded vultures make long flights low over the mountain slopes, precisely following montane relief.

In Kyrgyzstan, the bearded vulture is found in all large ridges of the Tien Shan and Pamir-Alai mountains. It prefers to inhabit in high-mountainous and mid-mountainous areas, often occurring in the narrow gorges with steep inaccessible wall-slopes. This is a resident bird in the mountains of Central Asia. The bearded vulture is included in the Red Book of Kyrgyzstan as a rare species. It is also included in the IUCN Red List as a Near-Threatened (NT) species. The Bearded Vulture historically occurred within the large area of mountain ranges in Eurasia and Africa. However, currently it is extinct in many past habitats. Its populations are highly fragmented and the bird is relatively rare in all remained range’ areas. There are no exact data about population numbers and current distribution of bearded vultures in Kyrgyzstan. The species is protected by law. Conservation measures should include also the protection of breeding areas and public awareness campaigns about this species among the local communities.

This autumn the Kyrgyzstan’s people fight against the new political crisis to build a more democratic state. Arising political problems masked the conservation issues. But wildlife protection is also very important for this country, where the living natural resources and biodiversity provide valuable assets to human communities. The Calendar with the Bearded Vulture as a bird of 2021 will help to the KWCS’ conservation and public awareness campaign. The Society plans to print 2000 copies, for which it is necessary to raise less than a 1000 US$. The KWCS’ members look for support from civil society and caring people. Please, help their conservation efforts with your donation. They send you a copy of our small pocket calendar and information about their conservation activities.   

The Black Grouse in Kyrgyzstan

A cock of black grouse on the lek. By Alexander Zhdanko

The Black Grouse (Lyrurus tetrix) is well known and widely distributed in the forests of Eurasia. This species usually inhabits the forest openings and edges of wooded lands, suitable for leks, where males display group dancing or courtship behaviour each spring in dusk hours (early morning), attracting females. Usually the Black Grouse is associated with large plain forests of Europe and Russia. However, it also occurs in the mountain forests of Central Asia: in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

In Kyrgyz language, the spruce grouse has a simple name: “Kara Kur” or “black hen”. The distribution of black grouse in Kyrgyzstan is limited to the Tien-Shan spruce forests of the eastern part of the Issyk-Kul Region and Chon-Kemin Mountain Range. The species is found only in few places, which are isolated from other populations of this species in Kazakhstan. It is surprising how the small populations of this species survive in Kyrgyzstan in the conditions of long-term isolation. Due to its rarity the black grouse is listed in the Red Data Book of Kyrgyzstan since 1985 and protected by law.

Habitats of Black Grouse in Kyrgyzstan. By Elena Kreuzberg

This grouse is a large resident bird of a typical “hen” or “chicken” look. Males and females differ by size and color. Males are larger and wait from 900 g to 1.5 kg; they have glossy iridescent black plumage, bright red eyebrow and white under-tail feathers. Females have camouflage plumage, helping them to stay invisible on the forest floor during hatching eggs in breeding season.

Dancing rooster. By Alexander Zhdanko

In mountains of Kyrgyzstan, the black grouses prefer to stay in spruce forests with understory of mountain ash, barberry and other shrubs. In the breeding season – since end of March until early May – males gather on edges, open meadows and glades with dispersed juniper trees, serving as lek places. At the dawn of the morning, breeding males demonstrate spectacular dances and other elements of courtship behaviour, attracting females. Usually, the leks are located in the same places every year and up to 15 males can gather together during one morning tournament. Sometimes cocks fight, sometimes they flight in the air on 1-1.5 m loudly flapping by wings. Females come to the leks for mating, attracted by specific muttering of roosters.

Only females hatch eggs and raise offspring. They build a nest on the ground under the bushes, lining it with dry grass and moss. Females lay in the nest 5-6 eggs, which they incubate 19-25 days. Chicks after hatching are covered with thick down and leave the nest after a few hours, following the female. Chicks try to re-fly already after 10 days and begin to fly in a month. Grouses feed on insects, leaves and seeds of herbs, fruits, berries. In winter they can eat needle of coniferous (spruce and juniper). The main enemies of the black grouse in the mountains are the wolf, fox, golden eagle, goshawk, as well as shepherd dogs. Small predators, magpies and crows destroy eggs and hunt chicks.   The Black Grouse enriches mountain ecosystems with its presence. In order to attract public attention to the conservation of this rare species, the Kyrgyzstan Wildlife Society declared the black grouse as the bird of the year in 2015 and issued a calendar for distribution in schools and other public places in the Issyk-Kul region. The black grouse distribution sites should undoubtedly be protected in order to preserve these amazing birds for future generations.

Calendar: Bird of the Year – 2015. By Sergei Kulagin

Central Asian Tortoise and its Conservation

This tortoise is still widely distributed in the desert areas of Central Asia. Photos by Mark Pestov

If you will visit the desert plain near foothills of Nuratau Range in Uzbekistan in spring – from mid-March – until late May, more likely that you will be able to spot several individuals of Central Asian Tortoise, grazing on juicy spring ephemeral plants and cereals. This turtle has the huge periods of “hibernation”, hiding for harsh time of summer heat and winter cold in deep holes, and appearing again only next spring for the short period of breeding time. It is possible to distinguish “good” and “bad” years on the rings of the tortoise carapace. After “good” years, abundant with rains and juicy vegetation, the rings are wide and prominent; after “bad” years the rings are slightly distinguished. It is possible to identify the age of individuals counting yearly rings. Surprisingly, this tortoise could adapt to the extremely difficult conditions of cold Central Asian deserts and evolve for millennia, occupying all appropriate plain desert landscapes. This tortoise does not need too much that to survive in the modern world: habitats that are not disturbed and mild anthropogenic pressure. Many desert habitats are still virgin and cannot be transformed into agricultural lands due to lack of precipitation and water. However, anthropogenic pressure is a more serious threat…   

Development of road network is one of the threats for tortoise populations

Central Asian Tortoise (Agrionemys horsfeldii), the species widely distributed in Central Asia in the past, becomes more and more threatened in last decades due to species exploitation in the international trade, change and transformation of habitats, development of road network in the desert regions and other anthropogenic impacts. The species also called Horsfield’s Tortoise, Russian Steppe or Afghan Tortoise. This is an only tortoise species, which is an endemic of Central Asia. Species range and abundances significantly reduced last decades in the result of human development and transformation of virgin desert lands into irrigated crop production fields and due to international trade for pet markets. Central Asian Tortoise is included in IUCN Red List as a Vulnerable species (VU), however, its population status is unknown and not much is known about population trends (IUCN, 2021). The species is included in CITEC Appendix II and covered by agreement about international trade of wild plants and animals.

Central Asian Tortoise occurs in desert plains of Central Asia inhabiting sandy, gravelly sandy and loamy plains with sparse desert vegetation. It also can be found in stony-loamy foothills on elevations up to 800 m above sea level. Although there are known its findings on altitudes up to 1,600 m above sea level. But feeding conditions are better in the desert plains, therefore the population densities of tortoises in mountains are very low. Habitats with optimal conditions, providing a stable food base and reliable shelters, are represented by loess foothills and piedmont plains with ephemeral or wormwood-ephemeral vegetation, usually, below 800 m above sea level (Bondarenko & Peregontsev, 2017). According to assessment, conducted in Uzbekistan, the current range of Central Asian Tortoise in Uzbekistan occupies around 300,00 square kilometres. The population density varies significantly ranging from 0.1 – 0.9 individuals per hectare (rare) to 1.0 -9.9 individuals per hectare (common) and > 10.0 individuals per hectare (abundant).

Agricultural development of desert areas in Central Asia that took place in 1950-1980s led to expiration of this species within developed lands. Because tortoises ate seedlings of crops and green vegetation on agricultural fields. In some developed regions farmers collected and killed 2,000 – 3,000 tortoises a day.  At present, the Central Asia tortoise is extirpated from the developed regions. In some regions of Central Asia, for example, in Fergana Valley, the species is completely extinct. However, the greatest damage to the remained tortoise populations has been done by uncontrolled collection for trade.  

Males of tortoises are smaller than females

This species has an important value for local economies. Since 1990s until present, it is a subject of zoological trade, covering the needs of pet market, mostly in Europe. The tortoises for trade have been caught mostly in natural environment, therefore planning and control of animals collected for zoo-market are extremely important.

Collection of Central Asian Tortoise for trade started in 1960-1980s in southern Kazakhstan by Central Asian zoo-enterprise, located in Tashkent. Since independence time in 1990, this zoo-enterprise started to collect tortoises for trade in Uzbekistan, supplying for the market 4,000 -19,000 individuals annually. At the same time, the illegal trade to Russia and Ukraine on assessment of experts reached 50,000 individuals annually (Bondarenko & Peregontsev, 2006).  Until 1999, the CITEC quote was issues to Russia. Since 1999, it is issued directly to Uzbekistan. At the same time, since 1999 to 2016 the annual export quotas for collection of tortoises in natural environment increased from 35,000 to 80,000 individuals (UNEP-WCMC, 2016). A trend of sharp increase in trade took place from 2009. More likely, it is related not only high demand of the foreign markets in inexpensive turtles, but also by the increased number of organizations received official permits for catching. In total, according to expert evaluation from 1997 to 2015 only in Uzbekistan there were collected for trade legally 592,100 individuals. Besides, at least 430,000 individuals were exported for the same period of time illegally mostly to Russia and Ukraine (Bondarenko & Peregontsev, 2017).

Surveys carried out in Uzbekistan on the areas of long-term collection of tortoises for trade showed that uncontrolled catch caused the sex and age composition of the populations. After collection of individuals, suitable for trade (specimens with carapace’s length less than 12 cm), the populations are mostly represented by females over 15 years old (Bondarenko et al., 2001), because males are smaller than females and their share in catch is greater. The further research indicated that after 10 years of tortoise collection within surveyed areas, their density of populations significantly decreased and did not recover to the level before catching in next 9 years. The population density within the most part of the tortoise range does not exceed 3.0 individuals per hectare.

Central Asian Tortoise at the end of breeding season

All these facts indicate that sustainable catch of tortoises from natural environment should be only 10,000 – 12,000 individuals annually. But even in this case the international mechanisms do not solve the problem of tortoise conservation, because illegal collection and illegal export of tortoises through Kazakhstan to Russia and Ukraine. The conservation efforts should include strengthening of legislation and control, including other Central Asian countries, Russia and Ukraine. Monitoring of wild populations, public awareness and engagement in conservation of local communities in desert regions.         

References:

IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. 2020. https://www.iucnredlist.org/species/21651/9306759

Bondarenko D. A., Peregontsev E. A. 2006. Perspectives of Study and Protection of Steppe Tortoise in Uzbekistan // Chelonii. Vol. 4. P. 278 – 284.

Bondarenko D.A., Peregontsev E.A. 2017. Distribution of the Central Asian Tortoise (Agrionemys horsfieldii [Gray, 1844]) in Uzbekistan (Range, regional and landscape distribution, populations density). // Modern Herpetology, 2017, V. 17, issue 3/4. Pp. 124-146.

UNEP-WCMC. 2016 . Review of species selected on the basis of the Analysis of 2016 CITES export quotas. UNEP-WCMC. Cambridge. Available at:
http://ec.europa.eu/environment/cites/pdf/reports/

The Caspian Monitor in Central Asia

The Caspian monitor (Varanus griseus caspius) in aggressive pose – scaring possible enemies

If you will try to look for the global assessment of Desert Monitor (Varanus griseus) in IUCN Red List, you will not find this species, although many other species from this abundant genus (more than 70 species belonging to one genus – Varanus) have been already assessed. This widely distributed species, inhabiting deserts of North Africa, Central Asia and South Asia, is currently split into three subspecies by their geographic areas. The grey monitor (V.g. griseus) occurs in African deserts. The Indian desert monitor (V.g. konieczhnyi) is mainly distributed in deserts of Pakistan and north-west India. The Caspian monitor (V.g. caspius) inhabits deserts of Central Asia and neighboring southern countries: Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey and western Pakistan. In countries of Central Asia: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, it is included in the national Red Books as rare species with declining range and abundances.  

The Desert or Caspian monitor is the largest lizard in Northern Eurasia: the length of adult specimens from the tip of muzzle to the tip of the tail can reach 150 cm! The Caspian monitor is usually closely associated with large colonies of gerbils (Rhombomys opimus). In its complex burrows monitors find shelters, and the rodents themselves often make up the basis food diet of this predatory reptile. From shelters in search of food, the monitor can go up to 1 km or more. In case of danger, this large lizard may briefly run at speeds up to 120 m per minute. In search of bird nests, monitors, especially young ones, cleverly climb trees and shrubs.

Caspian monitor in typical habitat in the Kyzylkum desert

Female-monitor lays up to 20 or more eggs in deep burrows with relatively high humidity. When young lizards just hatched, they are about 25 cm long. The known life span of a monitor lizard is up to 17 years. Protecting from enemies (for example, when people trying to pick them up) the monitor lizard can bite quite a bit. Probably, their saliva contains anticoagulants, as wounds inflicted them bleed for a long time.

In 2012, the herpetologist from the Institute of Zoology in Almaty (Kazakhstan), Dr. Marina Chirikova received a grant from the Rufford Foundation (The Rufford Small Grants Foundation – www.ruffordsmallgrants.org ) for the implementation of project: “Attention! Grey monitor lizard! ”- aimed at studying and protection of this species. As a consultant to this species, I could take part in the expedition to the northern Kyzylkum desert – the main region of the habitat of the monitor lizard in Kazakhstan.

Our expedition began in May from the Shardara regional center, located on the Syr-Darya River near borders with Uzbekistan. From local truck drivers we knew that most recently on a dirt road going to the Bimirza village, they saw several monitors, crushed by cars, and explained how to get there. After driving on this road about 50 km our expedition discovered three monitor lizards, recently roadkill under wheels of trucks. These were large adult specimens, each is more than a meter long. We stopped, fixed coordinates of locations, described the terrain, photo-graphed dead animals, took tissue samples – pieces of the tail, phalanges of the fingers … Perhaps in the future will find partners for genetic analysis of our samples, and on thin sections of tubular bones will determine the age of dead reptiles … Definitely, we were unpleasantly amazed to see in the first day three dead monitor lizards, which are rare and formally protected in Kazakhstan! We were surprised to find all these lizards on dirt, sandy road, where cars moving with low speed. Why so many dead reptiles? We drove up to the camp of livestock breeders, began to communicate with local residents and found out that often the monitors are crushed by cars on purpose. Many people, as it turned out, traditionally believe in prejudice, believing that this large lizard can suck goats and sheep milk, brings misfortune, and if he runs between a man’s legs, then this person will remain childless… All these circumstances cause persecution of the monitor lizard by people.

Monitors often move along dirt roads, probably here they find more prey or scavenging on small roadkill animals. One such “hunter” or “scavenger” walked towards our car. When he spotted us, he turned and ran the other way. But he did not guess to move from the road and go into the sandy dunes. When the distance to the car catching up to him is reduced up to 10 meters, the lizard turned to our side and took the aggressive pose, maximally swelling and hissing, threatening large enemy…

Exactly so – face to face – fearless monitor lizards for hundred thousand years met their enemies – four-legged and feathered predators. And often the enemy retreated, not daring to attack on a formidable dinosaur armed with sharp teeth. However, against a man driving a car such a success tactic does not “work”, especially if this man since childhood does not like and is afraid of the “horrible” lizard. That’s the main reason why these rare animals are threatened: one hand, hostility to them by the local population, on another hand, this is a behavior stereotype of monitor lizard… Of course, small monitors are hunted by many desert predators, like any lizard. But large adult monitors do not have enemies except for man.

The most vivid impression of this expedition again was related to the negative impact of man, although this time it ended well … Near the northern border of the monitor lizard’ habitats, which almost coincides with the border of Kyzylkum sands, we met with a group of zoologists from Kyzylorda anti-plague station. Zoologists told that they usually see this large lizard 5-6 times per season. But this time, they found the monitor recently in an old, dry well, located at the abandoned camp of livestock breeders. Our expedition went to the mentioned place and found still an alive monitor in a narrow well with a diameter of two meters and a depth of about 4 m.

It took some time to save the monitor, because he made several holes inside and did not indent to communicate with “scaring” people. However, we found ways how to capture him and take out from the well, where this lizard could die after while without food. We watered the saved monitor lizard – poured into it one and a half cup of water, because the animal was dehydrated. However, the monitor id not look very exhausted: in the well, we found the remains of a hare – a skin and a skull. Apparently, hare fell into the well and became the food of the monitor lizard. Obviously, the monitor fed up by falling down bugs, lizards and other small animals … It was a really large specimen – a female, 126 cm long. According to literature, maximal sizes of monitor lizards in Kazakhstan reach 130 cm, in Uzbekistan – 150 cm. However, local people said that they observed larger specimens.

We released the saved lizard away from the dry well, so that this monitor does not fall there again. By the way, after sitting half-hours in a bag and having been in the hands during the measurement process, the monitor calmed down, his aggressiveness greatly diminished, and before liberation, he thanked us with a good photo-session. We wished her reproductive success in the continuation of the ancient line of this unique lizards, still inhabiting deserts …

During the expedition to Kyzylkum, in addition to the monitor lizard, we found other species such as a green toad, two species of geckos, three species of toad-agamas, steppe agama and Central Asian tortoise. All these animals, even small turtles, serve as potential food of the monitor lizard.

According to preliminary assessment, in southern Kazakhstan the remained stable population of Caspian monitor accounts, at least, several thousand individuals. Key species habitats are located in the southern part of northern Kyzylkum desert near borders with Uzbekistan. The main causes of the population decline are the death of monitor lizards under the wheels of cars on numerous dirt roads, covered Kyzylkum by dense network.

Obviously, there is a need to preserve the remained habitats of this rare and vulnerable animal, increasing protected area network in the Kyzylkum desert. There is a need also in a public awareness campaign that to change the attitude of the local people to desert animals.  Basing on collected materials and photographs, taken during expedition, we printed a colorful poster and pocket calendars with a portraits of monitor-lizards and disseminated them in schools.

The portrait of the Caspian Monitor

More information about the project “Attention! Caspian monitor lizard! ” can be found on the website telling about Herpetofauna of Kazakhstan, created by colleagues from Almaty. Naturally, in one year it is impossible to solve all problems associated with the protection of the Caspian monitor. Therefore, we continue to work on study and conservation of desert wildlife in Central Asia. We hope to achieve the good results in the protection of desert wildlife and this unique lizard through cooperation with national authorities and local people.

Winter counts of waterfowls on Issyk-Kul Lake in 2020

Issyk-Kul Lake even in summer time is surrounded by snowy peaks

Issyk-Kul is the lake, located in Kyrgyzstan in the Northern Tien Shan mountains on the altitude of 1600 m above sea level. “Issyk-Kul” is translated from Kyrgyz language as a “Hot-Lake”. It is named as this, because in spite of sever conditions in the mountains (the lake even during summer is surrounded by mountain peaks with snowy caps), the lake remains unfrozen even in winter time. This circumstance makes the Issyk-Kul Lake attractive not only for migratory, but also for wintering water-birds. Issyk-Kul Lake is the second largest saline lake in the world after the Caspian Sea, and it is also seventh deepest lake in the world. The lake is a part of the Issyk-Kul Biosphere Reserve. Since 1976, it is included in the list of the Ramsar Convention as a wetland of international importance especially for migratory waterfowls.  In 2002, the Government of Kyrgyzstan ratified the Ramsar agreement, which took into account the global importance of the natural complexes of the Issyk-Kul basin and the international importance of Issyk-Kul Lake as a wintering place for waterfowls.

Issyk-Kul Lake serve as a wintering site for many waterfowls species, including common coot (Fulica atra)

Our organization, the Kyrgyzstan Wildlife Conservation Society, together with the Issyk-Kul Biosphere Territory and the Issyk-Kul Nature Reserve, conduct annual winter water-bird surveys on Issyk-Kul Lake for many years. Winter survey data are regularly transferred to the State Environmental Protection Agency and Wetlands International, international NGO supporting such surveys since early 2000s.

Winter water-bird count on Issyk-Kul Lake

So in 2020, the winter survey was carried out from January 21 to 25. The entire water area of Issyk-Kul Lake was covered by team efforts, as well as the Orto-Tokoi reservoir, located near the lake. In the result of survey, there were recorded 56,758 individuals of 30 species of waterfowls and water-birds. Among them, there were observed several rare and threatened species included in IUCN Red List and in the Red Book of Kyrgyzstan. We observed several individuals of the White-headed Duck (Oxyura leucocephapa) – globally endangered species, which usually occurs on Issyk-Kul Lake during migration. We also counted 1790 individuals of the Common Pochard (Aythya ferina), which is globally vulnerable, because decline of many populations, especially in European countries. However, the most abundant were common species such as the Eurasian Coot (Fulica atra) with 38,600 individuals, mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) with 9,240 counted ducks and Red-crested Pochard (Netta rufina) with 2,340 individuals. Besides, we counted 17 white-tailed eagles (Haliaeetus albicilla), 615 whooper swans (Cygnus cygnus) and 1 Pallas’s gull (Ichthyaetus ichthyaetus), which are rare migratory and wintering species and included in national Red Book. We observed also 39 common shelducks (Tadorna tadorna), species, which usually migrate to south for wintering, and several other interesting species. The data of long-term surveys show that the main places of aggregations of wintering waterfowl are still represented by shallow water in the western part of the Lake and bays of its eastern part, which were recognized as Important Bird Areas and covered by protection within the area of Issyk-Kul Nature Reserve. The average annual number of waterfowls in the winter on Issyk-Kul Lake fluctuates from 40 to 70 thousands, confirming its role as a Ramsar site or wetlands of international importance for migratory waterfowls.

Whooper Swan (Cygnus cygnus) on Issyk-Kul Lake

About bats and COVID-19 by Heliana Dundarova

Heliana Dundarova, PhD, an expert in bat studies; a scientist at IBER-BAS (Bulgaria) and a guest researcher at Osh State University (Kyrgyzstan) during field work

Bats (order Chiroptera) are the second largest order of mammals (1411 species). They are the only mammals capable of flying actively, which allowed them to be globally distributed. In general, flight has led to high refinement of order Chiroptera, and orientation through echolocation, which allows them navigate in reduced visibility environments. In-flight body temperature rises, which speeds up their metabolism and puts their bodies in a constant state of high fever. The temperature varies from 38 to 41 °C. This type of energy production and consumption is huge and intolerable for other mammals. High energy potential leads to the release of huge amount of free radicals, which damage DNA molecules and kill the cells of mammals. However, this does not happen to bats and scientists have found out why. They have a mutation which accelerates the cell’s ability to find and repair damaged DNA molecules. In addition, their cellular mechanism practically does not allow the damaged cells to multiply, as is the case with all other mammals, and cancer is rare.

The colony of Rhinolophus lepidus in the mine

In all mammals, the immune system triggers a group of signaling proteins called interferons. When a virus enters a cell, interferons produce signals to warn the other cells to activate their antiviral mechanism and prevent the virus from further multiplying. In bats, interferons are constantly activated and there is no mechanism to switch them off and thus they constantly control the viruses. Therefore, extreme energy production, high body temperature, mechanisms for the rapid recovery of damaged DNA, and the specific immune system make bats a suitable reservoir of different types of RNA viruses. These viruses are adapted to the dynamic cellular life of their hosts as well as to bats. RNA viruses from bats cannot be transmitted directly to humans because their fine-tuning requires other organisms (intermediate hosts) in which the cells viruses adapt to the final host. Similar examples from the recent past are SARS-CoV coronaviruses and the MERS-CoV virus. In 2002, SARS-CoV caused Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and has affected about 30 countries, of which, for 800 people, the outcome was lethal. It is established that similar coronaviruses are carried from bats but the infection to people did not happen directly. The source of the infection is civets, a species of rare predator that is sold freely to markets in China. The virus has long been spread by the intermediate host in Chinese markets.

In 2012, the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) appeared. The intermediate hosts are camels, who have been carrying the coronavirus for about 30 years. MERS caused an epidemic in the Arabian Peninsula, about 2000 people were infected, and the death rate was 50%. The scenario for the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes the COVID-19 syndrome, is similar. The virus genome is most similar to the CoV RaTG13 coronavirus known from the intermediate horseshoe bat (Rhinolophus affinis), which inhabits the Yunnan province, China and Southeast Asia. The virus binding receptor at the intermediate horseshoe bat and other horseshoe bats cannot directly bind to the human ACE2 receptor located on the outside of the lung cells. There was a tuning time (mutation) period in the intermediate host that took years to separate SARS-CoV-2.

The Horseshoe Bat – Rhinolophus ferrumequinum

Globally, mammalian organisms, including humans, are full of different corona-viruses. They are divided into specific groups, and interspecific transmission is extremely rare, since the virus must adapt to the specific cellular receptor of the final host. Therefore, direct transmission from bat to human with SARS-CoV-2 is excluded.

Bats are the natural “biopesticides” on Earth. Globally, one bat consumes a huge amount of the known pests on forests and farmlands such as the insect pests on coniferous plantations, cereals and fruit orchards. Bats regulate the numbers of the Greater Wax Moth; whose larvae are parasites on beehives.

The Lesser Mouse-eared Bat – Myotis blythii – species widely distributed in Eurasia

Many bat species control the mosquito populations, which are the main reservoir and vector of Zika, Yellow fever and Dengue. One bat colony can eat about 100 tons of insects per night.

The danger does not come from bats or other animals, but from the human beings. People penetrate into previously virgin places, destroy natural habitats at unimaginable speeds, and move quickly from one to another point of the world. All this allows pathogens to overcome the interspecies barriers that previously prevented them from emerge and spill-over uncontrollably.

References:

Simmons N. B. 2005. Order Chiroptera. In: Wilson, D. E., Reeder, D. M., editors. Mammal species of the world: a taxonomic and geographic reference. 3rd ed. Baltimore (MD): The Johns Hopkins University Press. p. 312-52

Kristian G. Andersen, Andrew Rambaut, W. Ian Lipkin, Edward C. Holmes, Robert F. Garry. The proximal origin of SARS-CoV-2. Nature Medicine, 2020; https://doi.org/10.1038/s41591-020-0820-9

Zhou, P., Yang, X., Wang, X. et al. A pneumonia outbreak associated with a new coronavirus of probable bat origin. Nature, 2020; https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-020-2012-7

Ji, W., Wang, W., Zhao, X., Za, J., Li, X. Cross-species transmission of the newly identified coronavirus 2019-nCoV. Journal of Medical Virology, 2020; https://doi.org/10.1002/jmv.25682

Mountains of Central Asia as a touristic destination by Sergey Toropov

Summer day in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan
Mountains around Chon-Kemin River, Kyrgyzstan

The majestic mountain systems of Dzhungar, Tien Shan and Pamir-Alai, ridges covered with dazzling white glaciers, and emerald meadows of mountain valleys with sapphire eyes of lakes, seething streams and waterfalls of fast mountain rivers carrying their crystal waters into deserts, languishing from the heat. All this diversity of ecological landscapes and climatic zones is the “Mecca” for tourists, scientists and travelers to Central Asia!

Issyk-Kul Lake is one of the largest mountain lakes in the world

Summer in mountains of Kyrgyzstan

Abandoned field before rain

Such a variety of natural landscapes creates unique conditions for the numerous representatives of the animal world, including many insects, the vivid representatives of which are butterflies – natural flowers of nature. More than 300 species of diurnal butterflies live in various ecosystems of Central Asia. Attracting magnets of this region are species such as swallowtails Parnassius loxias, an inhabitant of the rocky canyons of the Central Tien Shan in the Sary-Jaz river basin, and Parnassius autocrator, which is the dream of any lepidopterologist, the inhabitant of screes among the rocky massifs of the Pamirs. The habitats of these two species of Apollo butterflies are very local and almost inaccessible. In 2006, the entomological world was shocked by a sensation. In the unexplored places of the Inner Tien Shan, in the system of the Moldo-Too ridge, a new species of Apollo was described by the Russian entomologist S. Churkin. It was named as Parnassius davydovi. This is the first such discovery in a hundred years.

Papilio apollo merzbacheri, Kichi-Kemin, Kyrgyzstan

In addition to the 18 species of Apollos, occurring in this region, 14 species of “sulphurs” butterflies (Colias) are of particular interest to travelers – entomologists. Not one region of the world has such a diversity of species of this genus. Entomologists can find in the region the carrot-scarlet Colias draconis, an inhabitant of the steppe slopes of the Western Tien Shan, and the scarlet fiery red Colias regia, the endemic of Tien Shan. Other species include unusually painted in the ash-brown tones Colias christophi helialaica is an inhabitant of the Alai mountain range, persistently closed by fogs and the legendary, very rare Colias erschoffi, an inhabitant of the harsh middle mountains of the Dzhungar Range.

The fiery red blue-butterfly from Lycaenidae family –  Thersamonia solskyi attila – inhabits the mountain systems of eastern Alai. Endemic blues Plebejus lycaenidae with brilliant eyes on the lower wings inhabit buckthorn bushes along the banks of mountain rivers. Numerous species from satyr family – Hyponephele, Pseudochazara, Chazara, Karanasa and other satyrs inhabit dry foothills and high mountain steppes of various ranges.

All this sparkling and shimmering in the sun variety of diurnal butterflies cannot leave indifferent ecological tourists, entomologists and respectable scientists who are happy to plunge into the world of butterflies, during visits of Central Asia.

And when the daytime colors fade, the more modestly colored representatives of the night butterflies begin to dance near the daylight lamps. These are the nimble owlet moths (Noctuidae) with interesting genus Cuculia and swift hawk-moths with a rare species of Rhethera komarovi, and of course the peacock-eyed Neoris that amazes everyone with their large eye-spots on wings. Brightly colored tiger-moths inhabit high mountain valleys. Almost all species of this group of butterflies are endemic to Central Asia, including such genera and species as Oroncus, Acerbia, Arctia ruckbeili and numerous representatives of Palearctia genus.

This natural variety of mountain landscapes is inhabited by 318 breeding bird species. Besides, another 108 bird species appear in the region during migrations and wintering. Many birdwatchers have been attracted to the region by opportunity to observe such species as Ibisbill (Ibidorhyncha struthersii), an inhabitant of pebble floodplains of high mountain rivers. Other species of particular interest are a large Bearded Vulture or Lammergeier (Gypaetus barbatus hemachalanus), with a wingspan of about three meters, which makes nests in niches of inaccessible cliffs, and tiny White-browed Tit-warbler (Leptopoecile sophiae) with sapphire plumage, a small inhabitant of juniper dwarf. During trip to mountain valleys tourists will have chance to spot the cautious Pallas’s Sandgrouse (Syrrhaptes paradoxus), nesting in rocky deserts along the shores of the beautiful Issyk-Kul Lake, a rare high-altitude bird Lesser Sand Plover (Charadrius mongolus pamirensis), alpine White-winged Snowfinch (Montifringilla nivalis alpicola), flashing when flying with snow-white wings, and the legendary Blue Whistling Thrush (Myophonus caeruleus turcestanicus), with an amazing flute song, competing with the roar of the waterfall.

Posing rufous-naped tit
Rufous-naped Tit
Bright male of white-browed tit-warbler
White-browed Tit-warbler

Of the 86 species of mammals that live in Kyrgyzstan, the most famous is the fabulous Snow Leopard (Uncia uncia), a resident of rocky gorges. Snow leopards prey on unsurpassed mountain climbers – Ibexes (Capra sibirica), with horns reaches one-and-a-half-meter size. The Marco Polo Argali (Ovis ammon polii) also occur in high mountain valleys, whose horns are also not small. In older males, the length of the horn can reach 165 centimeters. A very beautiful and rare Pallas’s cat (Otocolobus manul) also lives on the alpine wet meadows (“syrts”).

Preparing to hunt...
Least Weasel (Mustela nivalis) in Kegety, Kyrgyzstan

Deserts of Kazakhstan

Ustyurt Desert Plateau

Kazakhstan is the largest landlocked country in the world. Its area is about 2.72 million square kilometers, and the total length of the borders is over 13 thousand kilometers. Besides, it is the second largest state on the planet, which is located immediately in two parts of the world (the border between Europe and Asia passes through Kazakhstan). The large area of ​​the country with various climatic conditions and relief generally determines the diversity of its landscapes and natural complexes. The relief of Kazakhstan is characterized by great contrast: the lowest point of the country is located on the Caspian coast (the bottom of Karagiye depression, which is 132 meters below sea level), and the highest point almost reaches 7 thousand meters (Khan Tengri peak in the south-east of the country).

“Solonchak” or salt-flat desert in the Kaplankyr Valley

The climate of Kazakhstan is generally moderate-continental and quite arid. In summer, heat waves are often observed here, and in winter it is cold (up to -40° C). In early spring, climatic contrasts in Kazakhstan are especially noticeable: when snowstorms are still raging in the north of the country, almonds and apricots are already blooming in the south.

Deserts and semi-deserts occupy almost half of Kazakhstan. They stretch almost a continuous strip from the coast of the Caspian Sea to the mountain ranges of the eastern part of the country. Within Kazakhstan, there are presented deserts of various types, including rock, sandy, gravel, “solonchak” or salt flat and clay deserts. Deserts provide specific natural habitats for many plant and animal species, including rare and threatened. The deserts of Kazakhstan belong to the type of Central Asian northern cold deserts, which are designated by the WWF as one of the 200 ecoregions in the world.

Desert with cliffs of Ustyurt Plateau and rare vegetation

It is generally accepted that desert biodiversity is very poor, since many living organisms have a hard time surviving in extreme conditions with a lack of moisture and extreme temperature fluctuations in day and night time. However, many species of animals and plants have adapted well to life in such conditions. Among them are many specialized species and forms. Very few amphibians (for example, green toad) have adapted to life in the desert, but reptiles – lizards, snakes and tortoises – are perfectly adapted specifically to harsh desert conditions.

It would seem that the desert is an environment unsuitable for human life and wildlife here is not in danger. But this is not true! The northern deserts, like many other regions of the world, have suffered from the intensive development and penetration of people with technology even into their hidden corners. Many deserts hide mineral deposits in their bowels and they are actively developed by people for economic purposes. Development carries out with it the burden and destruction of fragile natural ecosystems, the declining of species and their habitats. Desert wildlife species are no exception. Many wildlife species are included in the IUCN Red Lists and national red books.​

Among the most famous species of animals – the inhabitants of the deserts of Kazakhstan, listed in the IUCN Red List and the Red Book of the Republic of Kazakhstan, there are such as the goitered gazelles Gazella subgutturosa, the Ustyurt urial Ovis vignei arcal, the onager Equus hemionus, the sand cat Felis margarita, the caracal Caracal caracal, the houbara bustard Chlamydotis maquenii, Egyptian Vulture Neophron percnopterus, desert monitor Varanus griseus caspius, and many others.

In the deserts of Kazakhstan there are still many species that are not considered rare, but are clearly attractive for travel enthusiasts. You can see some of these animals below or on the link to our store:

The Persian Leopard in Kazakhstan: new observations

Landscapes of Ustyurt Biosphere Nature Reserve provide good conditions for surviving of wildlife, adapted to arid environment

New fact of Persian Leopard observation in Kazakhstan was confirmed in May 2020 due to camera-trap video taken in Ustyurt Biosphere Nature Reserve.   You can find here the short video about Leopard in the reserve:

The Leopard – Panthera pardus – is included on the IUCN international red list as a vulnerable species (VU) .  The Persian Leopard – P. p. saxicolor or P.p. ciscaucasica is a Central-Asian subspecies. It is even more rare and globally endangered (EN). The range of this species covers the Caucasus Mountains (eastern Turkey, southern Russia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia). It is also found in Iraq, northern Iran, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.

Until recent, the Persian Leopard did not occur in Kazakhstan. It was known from southern Turkmenistan, mostly from Kopetdag and Badkhyz Mountains. Besides, it was found in southern Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. But to the end of XX century, the leopard was almost extinct in both these countries. The distance from Kopetdag Nature Reserve in Turkmenistan to Usyurt Nature Reserve in Kazakhstan is 600 km, and from Badkhyz Nature Reserve to Usyurt Nature Reserve is around 1,000 km (976 km). Leopards needed to cross deserts and populated areas that to reach Kazakhstan. It is surprising that it could happen relatively recently – during last decades. 

First reports about findings and observation of Persian Leopard in Kazakhstan looked anecdotical. Time to time shepherds and people living in remote areas reported about observation of large spotted cat, which they called “kaplon” (the name of large cats, like, for example, cheetah). The leopard was not even included in the list of Kazakhstan fauna. However, in 2007 and 2015, the presence of leopard in Kazakhstan was confirmed by skins of two large cats. Shepherds shot the first leopard in the Mangystau region and showed its skin. Another leopard was captured in a trap set for wolves and also killed. More recently, during fall 2018, an alive leopard was fixed on a camera-trap set in the Ustyurt State Nature Reserve in the framework of the project for feeding scavengers (vultures), conducted with the support of the Rufford Foundation.

Cinereous vultures found scavenge. Photo by Mark Pestov

The leopard is not even officially included in the list of of the fauna of vertebrate animals in Kazakhstan.  Accordingly, this species is not listed in the  Red Book of Republic, which provides legal protection status for rare, vulnerable and endangered species. The last findings allow to make the necessary amendments in Kazakhstan that will provide both legislative and territorial protection of the leopard in the country.

Photo of leopard from camera-trap in Ustyurt Biosphere Nature Reserve

Not only leopard, but the presence of other interesting fauna was confirmed due to projects, organized last years, and camera-traps placed in the valleys of Ustyurt. Other interesting animals, found there, are the grey wolf, Central-Asian caracal, goitered gazelle and many others, adapted to severe conditions of life in arid environment.

Mr. Zhaskayrat Nurmukhambetov,  Deputy Director of the Ustyurt State Nature Reserve and coordinator of the project on feeding of scavengers can provide additional information about this finding.

Studies of fauna in remote corners of Central Asia should be continued and more likely that more secrets of wildlife adaptation and resilience will be discovered in the future.