Location and General Description
The Gissaro-Alai mountain system lies next to Pamir and Tien Shan mountains in Central Asia. It is composed of the Gissar, Zeravshan, Turkestan and Alai mountain ranges, and stretches latitudinally for 900 km. Maximal elevations reach 5500 m. Location in the center of Eurasian continent, far from the oceans, and neighboring position of the deserts determine the continental climate. Precipitation is at a maximum in winter and spring during the invasion of the Mediterranean and Atlantic air masses. Maximal humidity (annual precipitation up to 2000 mm) is in the glacial zone of the Gissar range; further east the amount of precipitation drops to 1000-1200 m in the Turkestan range, and to only 500-600 mm in the east portion of the Alai range. The snow line also changes, from 3400 in the west to 4540 m in the east. A vast network of mountain rivers is fed by the permanent glaciers of Gissaro-Alai. Orogenesis since the Tertiary period and the subsequent Quaternary glaciations have created isolated habitats that encourage speciation, resulting in overall heterogeneity and endemism among fauna.
A typically Central Asian composition of the Gissaro-Alai flora is expressed in predominance of Fabaceae (especially Astragalus spp.), Asteraceae (especially Cousinia spp.), Brassicaceae, Poaceae, Lamiaceae, various wild onions (Allium spp.), while the diversity of ferns, horsetails, sedges and willows is very limited. A variety of landscapes range from foothill semideserts to alpine meadows, combined with characteristic mountain forests. Foothills, below 1800-2000 m, are occupied by by ehemeroid sagebrusch communities (Artemisia diffusa, A. sogdiana, Poa bulbosa, Carex pachystilis), which are replaced at higher levels by herbaceous low herb ephemeroid communities (Poa bulbosa, Carex pachystilis,Phlomis thapsoides, P.bucharica). Spectacular red tulips (Tulipa micheliana) form characteristic aspect of ephemeroid spring vegetation. In the middle mountain belts, characteristic grasslands are dominated by Prangos pabularia, Ferula spp., Inula macrophylla, Crambe kotschyana, Paraligusticum discolor. Grass meadows are widespread at higher elevations of the Turkestan, Zaravshan, and Gissar ranges; fescue (Festuca alaica ) is a dominant bunchgrass species here. At 3100-3400 m above sea level, subalpine meadows begin, with fescue, Poa relaxa, Puccinella subspicata, N.cocanica Nepeta podostachys.
The steppe grasses of this ecoregion grow alongside wild fruit and nut forests, including wild stands of such trees as walnut (Juglans regia), maples (Acer semenovii, A. turkestanicum), pistachio (Pistacia vera), hawthorns (Crataegus turkestanica, C. pontica), mountain ash (Sorbus tianschanica), pears (Pyrus korshinskyi, P. regelii), almonds (Amygdalus communis, A. bucharensis ), prunes (Prunus ferganica, P. sogdiana), cherries (Cerasus mahaleb), and apple (Malus sieversii). Common shrubs include various species of Rosa, Cotoneaster, Lonicera, Caragana, Colutea, Rhamnus. At the higher altitudes of the mountain ranges, juniper forests grow dominated by three species of juniper (Juniperus turkestanica, J. seravschanica, J. semiglobosa), complexed with maples, almonds, and roses. The valleys of mountain rivers house riparian forests with such dominant tree species as poplars (Populus), ash (Fraxinus sogdiana), willow (Salix), birch (Betula), jidda (Elaeagnus), species of Tamarix; shrubs Hippophae rhamnoides, Berberis sphaerocarpa, B. interregima.
The flora and fauna of Gissaro-Alai are rich in diversity and contain a number of endemic Central Asian montane species. There are 1200 vascular plant species in Ramit Reserve (Tajikistan) and 1500 in Gissar Reserve (Uzbekistan), with a high number of endemics often localized to specific mountain ranges.
The most common mammals of this ecoregion’s forests include wild boar (Sus scrofa), various species of rodents and shrews; in the lower altitudes is found the Indian porcupine (Hystrix leucura). Predators include wolves (Canis lupus), red fox (Vulpes vulpes), weasel (Mustela nivalis), ermine (M. erminea), marten (Martes foina), badger (Meles meles), otter (Lutra lutra), Turkestan lynx (Lynx lynx), Tian Shan bear (Ursus arctos). The bear is rather common; its density in the Gissar Reserve (Uzbekistan) is estimated as 4-5 per 100 sq. km. Species more common to the juniper forests and higher altitudes include marmots (Marmota), tolai hares (Lepus tolai), Turkestan red pikas (Ochotona rufescens), juniper voles (Microtus juldaschi) and Siberian roe deer (Capreolus capreolus).
The diverse list of the Gissaro-Alai birds of prey includes vultures (Aegypius monachus, Neophron percnopterus), Lammergeier (Gypaetus barbatus), eagles (Haliaetus leucoryphus, Aquila chrysaet?s, A. heliaca, Hieraetus fasciatus), buzzards (Buteo rufinus), hawks (Accipiter nisus), eagle owl (Bubo bubo), small owls. Other characteristic bird species include chukar partridge (Alectoris chukar), Him?layan snowcock (Tetraogallus himalayensis), northern goshawk (Accipiter gentilis), wagtail (Motacilla), golden oriole (Oriolus oriolus), titmice (Parus, Remiz), sparrows (Passer), shrikes (Lanius), spotted flycatchers (Muscicapa), eastern turtle dove (Streptopelia orientalis), rock pigeon (Columba livia), wood pigeon (Columba palumbus) and thrush nightingales (Luscinia luscinia). ?here are many rock birds such as rock nuthatch (Sitta neumayer), wallcreeper (Tichodroma muraria), pied wheatear (Oenanthe pleschanka).
At higher altitudes, one can also see woodpeckers (Picus), finches (Carpodacus), Eurasian hawfinch (Coccothraustes coccothraustes), white-winged grosbeak (Mycerobas carnipes), Himalayan tree creeper (Certhia himalayana), black redstart (Phoenicurus ochruros), greenish warbler (Phylloscopus trochiloides), cuckoos (Cuculus canorus), nutcrackers (Nucifraga caryocatactes), Stewart’s buntings (Emberiza stewarti).
Species of venomous snakes, Central Asian viper (Vipera lebetina) and cottonmouth (Agkistrodon halys) are found in this ecoregion. Among non-venomous snakes are water snake (Natrix natrix), rat snakes (Coluber), blind wormsnake (Typhlops vermicularis). A number of lizard species (skinks, geckos, agamas) are characteristic for the mountain forests, among those Himalayan rock agama (Stellio himalayanus), legless glass lizard (Ophisaurus apodus), Asian snake-eyed skink (Ablepharus pannonicus).
A list of endangered and protected mammal species in Gissaro-Alai includes several species of wild ungulates. The wild sheep, or Bukhara urial (Ovis vignei bocharensis) and markhor goat (Capra falconeri) occur in the southern spurs of the Gissar range (Kugitang, Baisuntau, and Babatag mountains). Their numbers during the last surveys were not higher than 300-400 animals for markhor, and 300 for urial. At present, both species are under protection in Surkhan nature reserve in Uzbekistan and Kugitang zapovednik - Turkmenistan (Kugitang range). The Siberian ibex (Capra sibirica). occurs in Gissar range. The ibex is protected in nature reserves (Zaamin and Gissar) in Uzbekistan, where its density reaches 25 per 100 sq. km. In the Gissar Reserve the number of ibex was estimated in 1000 individuals as of 1999. Common leopard is extinct from the region, but snow leopard still lives in Gissar mountain range. The ecoregion is the most arid area, inhabited by lynx, brown bear (Ursus arctus isabellinus); striped hyena is rare.
Currently, there are several specially protected areas (nature reserves) in this ecoregion: Kugitang in Turkmenistan; Zaamin and Gissar in Uzbekistan; and Ramit in Tajikistan. Also, several national parks exist with more relaxed protection regime. After civil conflicts in Tadjikistan Ramit zapovednik still exist (although decreased in area), but majority of ungulate species were just eliminated while groups of gangsters were blocked in Ramit gorge for a winter. Contrary to that, ungulate populations of Kugitang zapovednik are in surprisingly good condition. Together with very interesting caves it supports an clear possibility for ecotourism development in the region.
Types and Severity of Threats
The mountain forests of Gissaro-Alai play a crucial role in preventing wind and water erosion. During the past two centuries, a lot of the natural woodland in this ecoregion have been cleared for firewood and overgrazed by the increasing amount of domestic cattle, causing soil erosion.
Agriculture, grazing, forestry, extractive industries, building construction, and recreation have caused the greatest impact on these mountain ecosystems. Many foothill ecosystems have shown a marked decline in biodiversity.
The ungulates, wild sheep and goats, are the most affected by human influence in this ecoregion. Wild goats are threatened primarily from traditional hunting by the local population, but they are also the prized trophies for foreign hunters. In addition, urial faces threats from loss of habitat and grazing land due to competition from flocks of domestic livestock as the majority of land in the ecoregion is used for sheep pastures, in some areas year-round.
Justification of Ecoregion Delineation
Boundary delineation of this ecoregion comes from Pereladova’s (1998) map of Central Asian ecosystems. Lines are derived from Pereladova’s mid-mountain zone of arid open woodlands and walnut-maple forests of the Gissaro-Darvas, Alai-Turkestanik and West Tian Shan regions.
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Fet, V., and K.I. Atamuradov, editors. 1994. Biogeography and ecology of Turkmenistan. Kluwer Academic Publishers, Dordrecht.
Flint, V.E., Y.D. Chugunov, and V.M. Smirin. 1970. Mammals of the USSR. Mysl, Moscow [In Russian].
Kamelin, R.V. 1990. Gissar reserve. Pages 272-282 in V. Y. Sokolov, and Y. Y. Syroyechkovsky, editors, Zapovedniki Srednej Azii i Kazakhstana (Reserves of Central Asia and Kazakhstan). Mysl: Moscow (in Russian).
Pereladova, O., V. Krever, and M. Williams. 1998. Biodiversity conservation in Central Asia – Analysis of Modern Situation and Project Portfolio. WWF, Moscow.
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Prepared by: G. Fet, V. Fet
Reviewed by: K. Rachkovskaja, O. Pereladova