Central Asia: Kazakhstan, Russia, China, and Mongolia

The Altai Mountain Forest steppe ecoregion, the highest mountain system in southern Siberia, stretches from the Beluha mountains on the Russian Kazakhstan border southwest to central Mongolia. Providing habitat for species from both the steppe and the taiga, this region has a high degree of biological diversity. Principal threats include illegal logging and problems associated with livestock agriculture (e.g., overgrazing, pasture degradation, and desertification).

  • Scientific Code
  • Ecoregion Category
  • Size
    55,000 square miles
  • Status
  • Habitats

Location and General Description
This ecoregion stretches from the Beluha Mountains on the Russian Kazakhstan border southwest through the Mongolian ranges Aj Bogd, Jargalant Khairkhan, Khasgtkhairkhan, Darvi range, and Khar Azarga, Taishir and Baatarkhairkhan. The Altai Mountains form the divide between the closed, arid watersheds of inner Asia and the massive river drainages that flow northward through Siberia into the Arctic Ocean. The Khovd, Uyench, Bodonch and Buyant rivers belong to the central Asian internal drainage basin while the Bulgan, Katun and Black Irtish rivers belong to the drainage basins of the Arctic Ocean.

The Altai Mountains experience an extremely cold, dry climate due the exceptionally high altitude and the Asian anticyclone formation over Uvs Lake (Dash 2000). The annual mean temperature of this region is –4oC to –6oC with the mean temperature in January dropping to –24oC and in July increasing to +12oC. The average annual precipitation is between 250 - 400 mm.

One interesting characteristic of the forest steppe zone is the coniferous forest found on cooler, moister northern slopes and the steppe vegetation that predominates on the other slopes. Larch-cedar forest exists at the beginning of the Khovd river, and larch (Larix spp.) forests can be found behind the main elevations of the Bulgan and Chigertei rivers and behind the Khasagtkhairkhan and Taishir Mountains. At the beginning of the Khovd River and at Dayan, Khoton and Khorgon lakes there is residual forest of real taiga. Fir (Picea spp.) groves remain in several mountains located along the Khovd River. Betula spp., Rezniczenaona spp., and poplar (Populus pilosa) remain as residual species in the humid gaps of several mountains. Festuca lenensis and Koeleria cristata are the dominant trees that run along the mountain ranges at mid-elevations while Hippophae spp. and Cargana spinosa grow along the rivers. Desert and desert-steppe species such as Stipa pennata, Allium polyrrhizum, Anabasis brevifolia, and Artemisia frigida reach far into the southern regions of the Altai mountains. This is a result of the strong influence of the arid desert climate that originates from the south and southwest of this range (Ulziikhutag 1989).

Biodiversity Features
The Altai Mountains encompass the most complete sequence of vegetation zones in Western Siberia and are viewed as the center of origin for montane vegetation in north Asia (Koropachinsky 1996). The vegetation of this eco-region exhibits a higher degree of endemism (12%) than that found in either the Pyrenees or the Alps.

The Altai Mountains are therefore a good example of the combined existence between steppe and forest in a mountainous area. Fauna typically associated with either forest or steppe share habitats in the Altai. Rodents such as Marmota baibacina and M. sibirica and lagomorphos such as Ochotona alpina are the predominant small mammals in the Altai Mountains. Globally endangered wild animals include Capreolus pygargus and Cervus elaphus in the forests and Ovis ammon and Capra sibirica in the mountainous area. Carnivores include Canis lupus, Vulpes vulpes, Vulpes corsac and Otocolobus manul in the mountains, valleys, and steppe, Lynx lynx in the forest, Gulo gulo in rugged areas and Meles meles in the forest steppe. Smaller carnivores include Mustela erminea, M. eversmanni and M. nivalis in the mountain and steppe.

The higher elevations contain rare animals and are a key area for the conservation of globally threatened and endangered species such as snow leopard (Uncia uncia). This population serves as an important source for individuals dispersing into southern Siberia, Mongolia and Kazakhstan (IUCN 1998). Forest doormouse (Dryomys nitedula) and beaver (Castor fiber) at Bulgan River, and Kozlov’s pygmy jerboa (Salpingotus kozlovi) in the desert steppe are endemic and threatened species of this ecoregion.

Bird species such as Tadorna ferrugine and Anas platyrhynchos occur in wetlands, Dendrocopos major in the forests while Parus major, Motacilla cinerea, Alaudia arvensis, Anthus hodgsoni, Lanius cristatus, Milvus migrans, and Corvus corax occur everywhere else in this area. Urban areas are rich with Passer domesticus. Notable reptiles are Phrynocephalus versicolor, Elaphe dione, and Agkistrdoon halus.

The Katun River is one of the most pristine, free-flowing stretches of river in Russia. The fish fauna of the high mountain lakes, at the headwaters of the Katun, form a biologically complex pattern that is not yet well understood (Golubtsov et al. 1999). This watershed is part of the Mongolian biogeographic province, a region characterized by relict populations and endemic species and genera (Howe 1991).

Species of fish such as Coregonus peled, Thymallus arcticus arcticus, Nemachilus barbatulus toni, and N. strauchi are liberally distributed in the small lakes and rivers through the ecoregion. Fishing is having a significant impact on Oreoleucicus potanini and Thymallus brevirostris.

Insect diversity in this ecoregion is relatively high. Dominant insect groups include Hemiptera, Coleoptera, Lepidoptera, Cantharidae, Coccinellidae, Miridae and Orthoptera that are distributed in the arid/dry steppe. Homoptera, Tenebrionidae, Meloidae, Chrysomelidae, Curculionidae, and Scarabaeidae insects are also occur in this area.

Current Status
In the 1990s the centralized government infrastructure collapsed as Mongolia turned to a market economy. The result was a large amount of unemployment and a sharp increase in the number of people who turned to livestock agriculture. The increased number of livestock has caused pasture degradation, overgrazing and desertification in prone areas.

Many of the areas surrounding Tonkhil and Tsetseg lakes have been modified by desertification.

Types and Severity of Threats
Illegal logging continues to grow in the region and consequently exacerbates problems associated with desertification. Regional forest researchers support strong conservation efforts stating, "the Mongolian Forest is not for logging. Rather, it is for conservation so no possibility should exist for the use of the forests of the Mongol-Altai" (Ulziikhutag 1989).

Justification of Ecoregion Delineation
In Central Asia, ecoregion lines are based on the dark and light coniferous forests of the North Altai and the Altai-Saur-Tarbagatai in Pereladova’s (1998) map of Central Asian ecosystems. In Russia, they correspond to the subzone of southern taiga in the in southwestern Siberia province according to Kurnaev’s (1990) forest map of the USSR. In Mongolia, the ecoregion is defined by Mongolian Altai Mountain taiga forest (Mongolia Ministry for Nature and Environment 1996). The boundary in China is based on the CVMCC (1979) Vegetation Map of China vegetation classes of larch (1), spruce and fir (2a), and grassland (42). This is comparable to the Altaishan biogeographic subunit in the Altai Highlands according to Mackinnon et al. (1996).

Chinese Vegetation Map Compilation Committee (CVMCC). 1979. Vegetation map of China. Map (1:10,000,000). Science Press, Beijing.

Golubtsov, A.S., P.B. Berendzen, and C.A. Annett. 1999. Morphological variation and taxonomic status of the Altai osman Qreoleuciscus (Pisces: Cyprinidae) from the upper reaches of the Ob River System. Journal of Fish Biology 54: 878-899.

Howes, G.J. 1991. Systematics and biogeography: An overview. Pages 1-33 in I.J. Winfield and J.S. Nelson, editors. Cyprinid fishes: Systematics, biology and exploitation. Chapman and Hall, London.

IUCN-World Conservation Union. 1998. Documentation on World Heritage Properties (natural). World Heritage Committee. Twenty-second session. 30 November – 5 December 1998. Kyoto,Gland.

Koropachinsky, I.Y. 1996. Green book of Siberia: rare and requiring protection plant communities. Nauka (Siberian Publishing Firm RAS), Novosibirsk.

Kurnaev, S. 1990. Forest regionalization of the USSR (1:16,000,000) Department of Geodesy and Cartography, Moscow.

Mongolia Ministry for Nature and Environment, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)/Global Environment Facility (GEF), and World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). 1996. Mongolias Wild Heritage, edited by C. Finch. Avery Press, Boulder

National Atlas of the Mongolian People’s Republic. 1990. Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

Pereladova, O., V. Krever, and M. Williams,editors. 1997. Biodiversity conservation in central Asia – Analysis of Modern Situation and Project Portfolio. WWF.

Ulziihutag N. 1989. Flora of Mongolia, Ulaanbaatar (in Mongolian).

Prepared by: Enhee Devee
Reviewed by: Batbold D. Otgoid