Trip to Madagascar during Christmas Vacation

Author’s Tour of Ivan Leshukov  

Lemurs and Baobabs: Best birdwatching time to visit one of the most mysterious and attractive places for naturalists.

MADAGASCAR: October 24, 2023, – November 7, 2023

We change the time for the exotic author’s tour to Madagascar. We will be able to see the nature and wildlife of the mysterious Madagascar Island, which separated from India about 88 million years ago, during the breakdown of the ancient supercontinent of Gondwana. Since then, the unique flora and fauna of the island have been formed in conditions of complete isolation. As a result of this segregation, 90% of the plant and animal species that inhabit the island are found nowhere else in the world. People appeared on the island relatively recently, although the opinions of scientists about the time when the first settlers arrived differed. Surprisingly, this island drifted close to the east coast of Africa. Madagascar is one of the world’s largest islands on Earth (4th by the area) – and only here we can see unusual long-tailed curious lemurs, mammals that belong to primitive primates, they are sometimes also called semi-monkeys.  Only here we will be able to observe the funny Madagascar aye-aye (Daubentonia madagascarensis), which in appearance can be compared with an animal from a fairytale. This is only one modern species from the family. Also only on this island, travelers can find many endemic species of phlegmatic chameleons.

We will visit the best national parks of this island with untouched nature that speaks for itself, take a walk along the fantastic alley of baobabs, get acquainted with the life of the local communities, swim in the Indian Ocean, enjoy wonderful fruits and admire the magnificent landscapes of this tropical island!

Cost: 3,400 CAD (shared room) and 3,800 CAD (single accommodation).

Duration: 15 days

Group size: No more than 10 people, so, that everyone has the opportunity to see unique animals and feel the peculiarities of Madagascar’s nature.

Season: We are going during the rainy season, so, the chance of rain in Andasibe municipality is quite high. But at this time, we have an opportunity to see more interesting living creatures, and the prices for services are lower.

Enrollment in the group closes 30 days before the start of the trip.

See the link for a detailed description.

Included in the price:

  • Transfer from the airport to the hotel in the first day and back on the last day.
  • Accommodation in double rooms in comfortable hotels and guest houses with access to Wi-Fi in all places except Palmarium Reserve and Kirindy. Breakfast is included.
  • Accommodation in a single room is possible for an additional fee.
  • Lunch and supper – in local cafes and restaurants with a rich selection of dishes and preserved traditions of French cuisine.
  • Comfortable transportation: minivan like the Hyundai Starex.
  • Environmental fees.
  • English-speaking group guide with background in biology (ecology and biogeography).
  • The author of the tour is a wandering naturalist with rich experience in organizing unforgettable trips to unique places on the Planet.
  • Acquaintance with the local nature, unique species of plants and animals.
  • All tickets, excursions, and attractions are indicated in the program and tour description.
  • Organization of travel and assistance at all stages from buying an air ticket, and preparing documents to collect a backpack.
  • Friendly atmosphere, individual approach to each participant, caring for the whole group during a trip.
  • All taxes and fees, no additional charges.

* When recruiting less than 6 people on a tour, the total cost will be significantly higher.

* If you cancel the tour on your part, the prepayment is non-refundable (goes to the hotel reservation).

 The price does not include:

  • Airfare (our agents will help you choose the best airfare).
  • A visa is obtained upon arrival at the airport of Madagascar: its cost is 37 $USA.
  • Travel health insurance.
  • Personal expenses (for food, souvenirs, additional excursions, and entertainment according to your desire not included in the program)
  • Alcoholic drinks.
  • Surcharges for single rooms.

* This is a real live tour where the guides may change the itinerary due to transportation challenges, weather or the condition of the participants.

* The organizers are not responsible for force majeure related to weather and other external circumstances.

* Participants of the trip must have a yellow card (yellow fever vaccination, which is required for all travelers to the tropics of Africa and Latin America).

* Don’t forget your binoculars for animal-watching and your cameras. For night trips, headlamps will come in handy, just flashlights will also be useful.

* Item list for your travel: Footwear – light sneakers. Summer clothes plus fleece jacket and windbreaker (minimum temperature can be +16-18 degrees at night). Sunglasses. Hats. Sunscreen (+50). Mosquito repellent. First aid kit for your needs. Flashlight.

* Your baggage: It is better to take a small or medium-sized suitcase with your basic things. Small backpack for going on excursions.

* * *.

Payment order:

500US$ prepayment

The balance should be paid until November 24, 2023

Start of the tour October 22-24; The last day of the tour – November 07.

Please, contact Elena Kreuzberg regarding travel arrangements, including trip details, travel insurance, and airfare at or by phone at +1-613-297-6405

For more information and/or to book this tour, please contact the travel agency directly at
YYT Travel Tours: 7851 Dufferin St., Suite 100, Toronto (Thornhill), Ontario L4J 3M4 Tel: 1.877.999.4768 or 905.660.7000 – TICO Reg: #4332359

Excursion to Forêt-la-Blanche Ecological Reserve

Forêt-la-Blanche Ecological Reserve protects an exceptional forest ecosystem in Quebec. It owes stands of mature trees that were not disturbed by human activities. It is also an area with a rich diversity of amphibians, reptiles, birds, insects, plants, and mushrooms. The reserve was established in 2003. It contains 12 km of trails crossing forests and wetlands.

We’ll walk on the wooden trails with fascinating views of the wetlands. We’ll discover the variety of plant and animal species inhabiting different types of ecosystems in forests and wetlands. We’ll have a chance to spot turtles basking in the sun’s rays. At the end of April, we expect to find some of the first blooming spring flowers and first spring mushrooms called Scarlet Caps.  We’ll try to explore and understand the life of the forest and wetland inhabitants during spring.

We’ll meet at 9:30 am on May 07 (Sunday) in the small parking lot near the Interpretation Center of the Ecological Reserve in Mayo. We’ll have an opportunity to explore several trails, walk in the forest and around lakes, and stop to observe interesting species of plants, amphibians, and birds. I have several spots in my car for carpooling for those who travel from Ottawa. Do not forget your cameras!


Please, watch the weather forecast for the weekend so that you can prepare in accordance with the weather. It is better to wear waterproof shoes: there are many wet places in the forest.  We recommend also taking water and a light snack.

From foothills to snow-capped peaks in Kyrgyzstan

Author’s Tour of Elena Kreuzberg (Canada) and Sergey Kulagin (Kyrgyzstan)

Journey to the heart of the Tien-Shan Mountains in Central Asia

KYRGYZSTAN: June 11-25, 2023

This is a journey for nature enthusiasts, for those who are interested to see the variety of ecosystems and biodiversity in all their manifestations. We will drive along mountain roads and visit places with rich biological diversity, as well as get familiar with the cultural traditions of the Kyrgyz people, who move to high mountain pastures in summer.  We will have the opportunity to look at the plains and human settlements adjacent to foothills from the height of mountain passes, see the turbulent streams running down narrow gorges from snow peaks, enjoy the splendor and variety of colorful alpine meadows with marvelous butterflies fluttering over them, walk along the paths in the lush forest belt, hear the singing of numerous birds and the whistle of marmots warning their neighbors about the appearance of unexpected guests in their habitats… We will be able to dive into the clear waters of Lake Issyk-Kul, surrounded by snow-capped mountain peaks on the hottest days of summer. And also we will be able to explore the colorful and noisy Asian bazaars and immerse ourselves in the oriental flavor, where history and modernity perfectly complement each other.

Cost: US$2,350

See the link for a detailed description.

In group tours, we take usually 8-10 people, so that everything goes comfortably, and cozy in a friendly atmosphere and we have an opportunity to pay attention to everyone.

Canadians do not need a visa to Kyrgyzstan for up to 30 days.

A PCR test is not needed.

Between-group tours, we conduct individual journeys to natural areas, where you can create an individual trip and realize any wishes related to exploring the environmental features.

Included in the price:

  • Transfer from the airport to the hotel after arrival and back on the last day.
  • Accommodation in double rooms in comfortable hotels and guest houses (with a unique local flavor, private gardens, and access to a swimming pool or a picturesque lake).
  • Accommodation in yurts, four or five people in a yurt (attention: in yurts electricity is supplied through generators, and toilets and washrooms are located outside. At night, yurts are heated only on Son-Kul Lake).
  • Meals: breakfast, lunch, and dinner. We’ll take lunch boxes during our field trips to the natural areas.
  • Comfortable bus.
  • Environmental fees.
  • English-Russian speaking guide with perfect knowledge of flora and fauna in Central Asia and the author of the tour throughout the entire journey.
  • Certified local guide (ornithologist) with unique knowledge of the history and amazing nature of Kyrgyzstan.
  • Outdoor hikes, informative stories, acquaintance with local nature, national cuisine, language, religion, culture, and customs.
  • All tickets, excursions, and attractions are indicated in the program.
  • Organization of travel and assistance at all stages from buying an air ticket, and preparing travel documents to collect items in your baggage.
  • Friendly atmosphere, individual approach to each participant, caring for the whole group during the travel.
  • All taxes and fees, no additional fees during the trip.

*If there are fewer than 8 people on the tour, the total cost will be higher

*If you cancel the tour on your part, the prepayment is non-refundable (goes to the hotel reservation)

*When borders are closed or other unforeseen circumstances, the reservation is transferred to other dates.

The price does not include:

  • Airfare (we will help you choose the most profitable flights for free)
  • Travel health insurance
  • Personal expenses (for food, souvenirs, additional excursions, and entertainment according to your desire not included in the program)
  • Horse riding
  • Alcoholic beverage
  • Surcharges for single rooms

*The organizers can change the order of the program, and excursions according to the circumstances (weather conditions) or wishes of the group

* The organizers are not responsible for force majeure related to weather, coronavirus, and other circumstances

* The mid of June is a hot summer in Central Asia, but not everywhere. Be prepared for noticeable temperature changes on the plains, in the foothills and in the mountains. Be sure to stock up on warm clothes, waterproof jackets and shoes, gloves and hats for hiking in the highlands (subalpine and alpine meadows and in evenings near mountain lakes). For the night hikes, you need to have a flashlight.

*Enrollment in the group closes 30 days before the start of the trip.

For more information and/or to book this tour, please contact the travel agency directly at
YYT Travel Tours: 7851 Dufferin St., Suite 100, Toronto (Thornhill), Ontario L4J 3M4 Tel: 1.877.999.4768 or 905.660.7000 – TICO Reg: #4332359

Mud Lake: Turtles and Birds in the Spring Time

This is a free guided hike for those who are interested to know more about birds and mammals that are well adapted to urban conditions or stop near Mud Lake during migration. We’ll meet at 9:00 am on May 06 (Saturday) at the parking along Cassels Street near Mud Lake.  We’ll explore the area near Ottawa River and around Mud Lake to enjoy the blooming season of first Trout Lilies and other spring flowers, we’ll walk around the lake that to observe amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals, inhabiting the urban area in spring or just passing this area on their way to summer breeding places in the tundra and boreal forests of Canada. We hope to hear the first American toads with their very specific spring calls. We also hope to see many turtles just emerged after hibernation and basking on the floating logs in small bays of the lake. At this time, we have a chance to see their large gatherings. Three species of turtles inhabit Mud Lake and if we’ll be lucky, we’ll observe all these three species. We also will be able to observe several duck species, which nest in the tree hollows and near the banks of the lake.

How to dress?

Please, watch the weather forecast to be prepared for a trip. It could be good warm weather this time, but you need to have waterproof shoes that are most comfortable for a trip on the wet forest paths.

What else might be needed?

It is great if you have your own binoculars for bird observations, cameras, or cell phones to make photos of birds, turtles, mammals, and other animals. It would be also good to have light snacks and water.

High Lonesome Nature Reserve in summer

Early August is a time when the first bird migrants start to move to the south: ruby-throated hummingbirds are among those migrants. This is also a time when you can observe some tiny amphibians (spring peepers and grey tree-frog) hunting insects from tall perennial plants… If you are interested to see the changes in nature after bird breeding season, join our guided tour to High Lonesome Nature Reserve, located near Pakenham in Ottawa Valley. We also explore summer berries and identify beautiful flowers attracting hummingbirds. Carpooling is welcomed.
Мы приглашаем всех желающих на экскурсию в небольшой заказник, расположенный поблизости от городка Пакенхам в долине реки Оттавы – High Lonesome Nature Reserve. Заказник был создан местными фермерами, он представляет из себя очень интересный участок дикой природы, привлекающий много самых разных видов интересных животных. В заказнике много интересных троп, пересекающих разные типы природных экосистем. Мы постараемся пройти по нескольким тропам, чтобы охватить участки леса и водно-болотных угодий.
Место проведения и предмет экскурсии:

Мы организуем поездку для любителей дикой природы в заказник под названием High Lonesome Nature Reserve. Заказник расположен недалеко от городка Пакенхам, в окружении полей и фермерских участков. Он интересен тем, что был создан местными фермерами – семьей Спенсеров, которые передали землю общественной организации – Mississippi- Madawaska Land Trust – в 2012 году.  Благодаря усилиям этой организации, а также привлеченных энтузиастов и волонтеров, экосистемы заказника были восстановлены до их первоначального состояния. В настоящее время – это территория, которую посещают любители природы в самые разные сезоны года.

Мы встретимся перед входом в заказник, где есть место для парковки нескольких автомобилей в 9:30 утра 6 августа (в субботу). Возможен карпулинг из Оттавы (в моей машине место есть на 2-3 пассажиров).

В начале августа начинается миграция многих перелетрных видов птиц. В это время начинается обильный пролет колибри, которые останавливаются в местах с цветочными полянками, а также около водоемов с обильно цветущими водными растениями, поэтому мы сначала пройдем вокруг небольшого озера, чтобы посмотреть, какие пролетные виды птиц уже появились. Мы также пройдем по нескольким лесным тропинкам, чтобы посмотреть лесных обитателей заказника. В это время маленькие древесные лягушки в жаркие дни залезают на кустики высоких многолетних трав. Если нам повезет, то мы сможем увидеть этих симпатичных лягушек охотящимися на насекомых.

Форма одежды:

В субботу ожидается жаркий день. Для похода можно порекомендовать легкие рубашки с длинным рукавом для защиты от солнца и комаров. Обувь – легкая и надежная для ходьбы по тропинкам. С собой нужно взять крем от солнца, а также спрей от насекомых. Палочка для ходьбы также не помешает на этом маршруте. Не забывайте о воде и легком перекусе.

Camping near Dumoine River

Join us for a journey to the Ottawa Valley’s last wild river – the Dumoine! A land of mature and old-growth forests, countless lakes, streams and wetlands – home to moose, bear, wolves, and over 160 species of birds. We are organizing a trip for naturalists, photographers and nature lovers to capture the beauty of this place on Canada Day.

The early summer is an amazing time in the taiga, full of cares and worries about the growing offspring of numerous forest inhabitants, the unique colors of flowering plants, the noise of running waves of a full-flowing river, piercing colorful sunsets and sunrises…

In summer, the taiga comes alive. It is filled with the voices of birds returned from distant wintering places and is colored with the variegation of flowering plants. We invite people open to the beauty or just nature lovers to share with us the unique moments of immersion in the wild nature of this amazing place. Birds returned to their breeding sites and occupied their personal “households”. In this time, they are most visible and heard. We’ll learn how to recognize birds by call and sight. At this time, amphibians are also very vocal; their chorus is more prominent at the dusk – early morning, and evening. We’ll learn how to identify various species of frogs and hope to see some of them during our trips to forests and along the river.

Our trip will take place on the Canada Day from July 1 to July 4. We will stop close to the cabin on the Lac Pinniseault and at a colorful place on the banks of the Dumoine River – close to Robinson Lake. Our team of three people organizes leisure activities and hikes for participants on the territory. We will observe the birds and animals that live in the area, as well as get up early to catch the unique morning light over the river and lake.

We invite a group of 10-15 people for this trip. We can provide transportation for people to the territory, and we also provide guidance on hikes to observe wildlife. We will stay close to John’s cabin, providing you with hot fragrant coffee, and tea at any time. We also will serve a small breakfast for everyone and dinner at the end of the day. We also have a special camouflage tent that can accommodate 4 people to watch birds and other inhabitants of the taiga. We have several equipped places for observation of nature in the Dumoine area, where photographers can stay to observe wildlife and take photos. We have several canoes for observation of nature from the water. We provide basic food, but we advise everyone to take additional food, whatever you like.

You need to bring a tent and camping essentials, flashlights, safety vests for canoe trips, your cameras, and protection against mosquitoes and other insects. Please, watch for the weather forecast and prepare your rain jackets and boots accordingly.

The cost of the trip – $ 150 per full day per person includes – registration, place in the camp, escort, breakfast, and dinner, as well as lessons in nature observation, identifying birds and mammals by voices and footprints.  In addition, we will provide you with transportation to our field camp from Swisha, ​​where you can leave your car, to the base camp, and back. We’ll charge half the price for the day of arrival and the day of departure.

Finding a way out of a deadly trap

Linear infrastructure, Kazakhstan
Little Central Asian tortoises – Agrionemys (Testudo) horsfieldii, classified as globally Vulnerable by IUCN

It is well known that the development of linear infrastructure has many adverse impacts on animals. For the first time, we found the problem of mass death of reptiles and other vertebrates in permanent deep trenches used for fencing agricultural land in the southeast of the Turkestan region of Kazakhstan in 2019, when 365 reptiles were found during a double survey of a trench about 10 km long in May and June of 2019. Five species are doomed to death from hunger and dehydration in the absence of human help in these deep trenches of artificial origin.

Deep tranches cause the death of many animal species in the arid areas of Kazakstan.

A preliminary analysis of the legislation of the Republic of Kazakhstan (KZ) showed that the use of permanent trenches for fencing agricultural land, leading to the mass death of animals and damage to land, is a violation of the Environmental Code of the Republic of Kazakhstan, the Law of the Republic of Kazakhstan “On the Protection, Reproduction and Use of Wildlife”, as well as the Land Code of Kazakhstan. Repeated publications in the media and appeals on this matter to various state authorized bodies of the Republic of Kazakhstan in 2019-2020, unfortunately, did not bring the desired result and did not become a reason for taking real measures, although we raised the problem and contacted with several mass-media, which highlighted the problem of impact on wildlife from new trenches.

Due to the limitations associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, new data were obtained only in May 2021 during an international zoological expedition organized by the Kazakhstan Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity (ACBK) as part of a project for the study and protection of gazelles supported by the SOS program (IUCN Save Our Species). The expedition was attended by specialists-zoologists from Kazakhstan, Russia, and Germany. As a result of a thorough survey, carried out on May 19-21, 2021, on a section of a trench arbitrarily selected from space images, which encloses the land of a farm at the junction of the borders of the Saryagash and Keles districts of the Turkestan region with a length of about 7 km (the total length of this trench is 36 km), we found 272 individuals of reptiles, including about 180 Central Asian tortoises – Testudo horsfieldi, 30 Sheltopusiks or Pallas’s Glass Lizards Pseudopus apodus, 40 Steppe Runners Eremias arguta (Near-threatened -NT- globally), 15 Dwarf Sand Boas Eryx tataricus and 1 Spotted Whip Snake Hemorrhois ravergieri. At the time of the survey, 20 reptiles had already died, and the remains of 7 foxes, 3 domestic sheep, and 1 foal were also found, which also fell into the trench and could not get out of it. All living reptiles were removed from the trench and released by us in suitable habitats at a distance of at least 5 km from the nearest trenches.

According to our updated estimates obtained using GIS, the total length of such trenches in the southeastern part of the Turkestan region (south of the city of Chimkent) is more than 500 km, thus, the number of reptiles that die in trenches annually can reach tens of thousands of individuals.

Thanks to the organizational support of the akimat (regional administration) of the Turkestan region, the problem of illegal use of trenches for fencing agricultural land this time caused a wide public response: a film crew from the regional television arrived at our place of work in the trench, accompanied by 15 volunteers to help save animals, and also employees of the District Land Committee. Later we met with a representative of the territorial inspection for the protection of wildlife. After our meeting with representatives of the Land Committee, they promptly began to issue demands for the elimination of trenches to tenants of land plots, who had taken the land in the lease for agriculture production. If they will not implement the rehabilitation measures destroying trenches, sanctions are possible up to the termination of land lease agreements. As a result, already in June 2021, the process of liquidating tranches began, which was confirmed by our personal observations and was highlighted in the media.

Thus, in 2021, as a result of the successful interaction of biologists, the leadership of the regional akimat (regional administration), state authorized responsible bodies, and the media, the real actions were started to eliminate the problem of illegal use of permanent trenches for fencing agricultural land in the south of the Turkestan region. It is obvious that for a comprehensive solution to the problem of mass death of animals in trenches, it is necessary to continue monitoring the situation in the Turkestan region and in other regions of Kazakhstan, to widely introduce the practice of rescuing animals from trenches before their elimination and, possibly, to amend the legislation of the Republic of Kazakhstan, including a direct ban on the use of permanent trenches for fencing agricultural land.

Local television taking an interview to highlight the problem of trenches impact on vertebrate animals.

According to unconfirmed data, such illegal use of trenches for fencing farmland is practiced not only in the Turkestan region of Kazakhstan but also abroad. Therefore, zoologists collect any reliable information on this issue.

Dr. Mark Pestov just recently came back home after the expedition to the Turkestan Region of Kazakhstan. Mark is a zoologist – herpetologist. He studies the life of cool-blooded animals – amphibians and reptiles. Several last years Mark is involved in studies and conservation of animals in Kazakhstan deserts. This is a story from Mark about new threats for wild animals that recently appeared in the deserts of Kazakhstan and the ways to solve them. All illustrations used in this review were provided and taken mostly by Mark Pestov. His contact details are

The Garter Snake on the forest path…

The mating behavior of snakes is not so easy to see. The mating displays usually occur immediately after the snakes leave their hibernacula (this term is used for winter shelters, where snakes brumate of sleeping, similarly to hibernation of other animals such as mammals) places, where they sometimes congregate in large clusters. But getting to such a hibernacula without a special purpose and without knowing the peculiarities of the ecology of snakes is almost impossible.

In spring, garter snake likes to bask in the morning near forest path

But then one day at the end of April, on a forest path, the rustling of foliage attracted my attention. I did not immediately understand where the rustle came from, but looking around I spotted an extraordinary sight. On the dry foliage of last year, covering the first shoots of the breaking green growth, an unusual ball rolled, from which for a moment heads or tails appeared on the surface … Yellow stripes on the body made it possible to immediately identify the species – it was a mating procession of a Common Garter Snake (Thamnophis sirtalis). One larger snake was distinctive from another dozen and half snakes of smaller size that are literally hovered around it. Squirming, first merging into one large ball, then stretching in a chain, the snakes continued their movement along the invisible pass in the dry foliage. But as soon as I took a step towards this extraordinary procession, the ball instantly became alert, assessing the situation, and began to disintegrate. Individual snakes crawled on the sides, looking for cover under the foliage, in the cracks between the hard rocks and between the roots of trees. Nevertheless, about a dozen of the most persistent continued to follow the largest snake. The presence of a small rock in the forest indicated that the snake hibernacula was somewhere nearby: snakes usually hibernate in cavities under rocks or in natural depressions formed under the roots of dead trees, where they can gather from several tens to several hundred or even thousands of individuals.

The common garter snake is widespread in Ontario. In the forests around Ottawa, it is the most common snake species. The slender body of garter snakes with a light stripe running along the keel from head to tail, with yellow or reddish longitudinal stripes on the sides and an elegant narrow head that smoothly merges into the body, allow anyone to immediately unmistakably identifies this species. The average length of a snake with a tail is 50-70 cm. Sometimes there are specimens that are larger – up to a meter in length, but they rarely can be found. Females are much larger than males. Only one female, accompanied by more than a dozen males, led the mating procession that I observed. This feature of the biology of the species directed to the fact that there are much more males in the population than females. Garter snakes are also remarkable by the reproduction features: they can both lay eggs, from which small snakes then hatch, and give birth to alive little snakes. Usually, individuals living in the north latitudes give birth to live offspring, and more southerly occurring counterparts lay eggs. In Ontario, garter snakes give birth to live young. During the season, the female can give birth from ten to forty offspring. But only a few individuals survive to adulthood since snakes are a desiring prey for both four-legged and feathered predators. In addition, a significant number of snakes are killed on the roads, under the wheels of cars in populated areas with a dense road network. In Ontario, there are two subspecies that are externally different: in the south, the nominative subspecies of Eastern Garter snake has the bright yellow stripes on the sides of the body, and in the northern subspecies, the red-sided garter snake has reddish-orange stripes.

Garter snakes are found in a wide variety of habitats, both in forests and in meadow communities as well as around wetlands. In the Ottawa Greenbelt and around, it is definitely a forest species, inhabiting light deciduous and mixed forests. The main food items for snakes are amphibians and earthworms, but on occasion these snakes can catch small rodents and passerines, as well as small fish. Hunting strategy includes two types of behavior.  Sometimes, garter snakes wait for prey, attacking approaching animals. But more often they actively pursue their prey, effectively catching fast tadpoles and small fish.

Garter snakes are harmless to humans. But this does not mean that anyone can catch them. It must be understood that the capture of any living creature is a huge stress for the latter. Therefore, if you notice a garter snake near the forest path, walk by, or watch the snake from the side without trying to catch it.

Garter snakes often hide in construction near human settlements, especially near forest cabins

If you wish, you can also join one of the programs of Ontario Nature such as Ontario Reptile and Amphibian Atlas or Youth Circle for Mother Earth, and contribute to wildlife monitoring and conservation.

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.         


IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. 2020.

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:

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 – ) 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.