Emin Valley steppe

This grassland and steppe-dominated ecoregion on the border between northwest China and Kazakhstan includes cold temperate mountains and a system of shallow saline lakes that provide breeding habitat for many waterfowl including two globally threatened bird species, Dalmation pelicans (Pelecanus crispus) and relict gulls (Larus relictus). The main threat to this ecoregion is mineral and oil extraction; Kazakhstan is well known for its mineral deposits.

  • Scientific Code
  • Ecoregion Category
  • Size
    25,100 square miles
  • Status
  • Habitats

Location and General Description
The Emin Valley is located along the China-Kazakhstan border, separated by dry mountains from the Junggar Basin to the east. Landscapes of this ecoregion are predominantly montane grassland with shrub-steppe below 2,000 m and meadow steppe and alpine meadow above. Grasses include the Central Asian steppe species, Festuca ovata, Stipa capillata, and S. glareosa.

Kazakhstan has a continental climate with seasonal temperature extremes. Winters are long and cold with snow cover lasting from 50 to 150 days depending on the region while summers are short hot and dry with an annual precipitation varying from less than 100 mm to 400 mm. Average temperature ranges in the north are from -18 degrees C in January to 19 degrees C in July, while in the south it ranges from -3 degrees C in January to 30 degrees C.

The western end of the Emin Valley ecoregion is perhaps the most biologically distinctive part. It includes two large and shallow saline lakes, Alakol and Sasakol. These lakes and their surrounding wetlands comprise 6,000 km2 in the extreme southeast of Kazakstan, south of the Tarbagatai Mountain Range. Lake Alakol has several small, low islands that provide important breeding grounds for wetland birds and are protected as part of the Alakol State Sanctuary (Kazakhstan). The lakes are surrounded by steppe vegetation and separated from one another by a large expanse of Phragmites spp. reedbeds.

Biodiversity Features
This ecoregion provides habitat for several mammal species of conservation significance, although it is not certain that they are currently present within the ecoregion. These include ibex (Capra ibex) and Saiga antelope (Saiga tartarica), and possibly their predators, snow leopards (Uncia uncia) and wolves (Canis lupus).

Both Alakol and Sasakol lakes have historically supported breeding populations of the globally threatened relict gull (Larus relictus) and globally threatened Dalmatian pelican (Pelecanus crispus). Surveys in 1998 located a large number of pelicans, but failed to record any relict gulls. The little bustard (Otis tetrax) breeds in the Tarbagatai Mountains on the northern side of Emin Valley.

Tacheng Nature Reserve (15 km2) supports riparian communities that contain wild almond (Prunus amygdalus) and its habitat.

Current Status
Concern has been raised about the status of relict gull breeding populations on Lake Alakol. None were observed during a visit in 1998, although team members (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, U.K.) suggest that they may have visited the site too late in the season and they recommend a return visit. In the late 1940s, Russia used parts of Kazakstan as sandpits for nuclear weapons, and it is unknown how much damage to the surrounding environment this has caused.

Types and Severity of Threats
The main threat to this ecoregion is mineral extraction. Oil, coal, iron ore, manganese, chromite, lead, zinc, copper, titanium, bauxite, gold, silver, phosphates, sulfur, iron and steel, are mined from this area and the consequent contamination and destruction of habitat is of serious concern.

Justification of Ecoregion Delineation
This ecoregion consists of broad plains and montane slopes of Emin Valley along the China-Russia border. Boundaries in China are adapted from CVMCC (1979) vegetation map classes of grassland (42) and shrub-grassland (47). This area corresponds closely to the Mackinnon et al. (1996) biogeographic classification of Emin Valley in the Turanian Steppe vegetation province. The adjoining area in Central Asia desert is comprised of steppes sagebrush-grass and semishrub semideserts of the North Tian Shan region as depicted in Pereladova’s (1998) map of Central Asian ecosystems.

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

Mackinnon, J., M. Sha, C. Cheung, G. Carey, Z. Xiang, and D. Melville. 1996. A biodiversity review of China. World Wide Fund for Nature, Hong Kong.

MacKinnon, J., and K. Phillipps. 2000. A Field Guide to the Birds of China. Oxford University Press, New York.

Pereladova, O., V. Krever, and M. Williams. 1997. Biodiversity Conservation in Central Asia. Moscow.

Prepared by: Chris Carpenter
Reviewed by: In process