Central Asia: Kazakhstan

This Kazakh upland ecoregion is considerably higher than the surrounding Western Siberian plains and Turgay plains. It features elevated plains, melkosopochniki (the local name for highly eroded plateaus), and low mountains. Habitat types characteristic to this area include petrophitic steppes with shrubs and brushwoods, granite rock pinewoods in the low mountains, and microphyllous woods associated with lakes and wetlands. This diversity of habitat types has allowed a rich diversity of flora and fauna to exist. Notable mammals in this ecoregion are herds of saiga, wild boar, lynx and badger. The avifauna of the region is particularly rich. Nearly 300 different species are found, of which 30 are considered rare. During seasonal migrations as many as 3.5 million geese visit the area. Principal threats to the biological integrity and biodiversity of the area include agricultural development and uncontrolled poaching. A protected area system within the ecoregion is now being developed and to date includes a nature reserve, two national parks, and a natural refuge.

  • Scientific Code
  • Ecoregion Category
  • Size
    27,800 square miles
  • Status
  • Habitats

Location and General Description
This ecoregion consists of three isolated parts which are similar in relief, but have different climates and vegetation (Karamysheva & Rachkovskaya 1973). The northern part, Kokchetav elevation, consists of low island granite mountains (600-900 m). The elevation presents a barrier to the movement of air masses from the west aiding an annual precipitation of 300-390 (Nikolaev 1999).

The average monthly temperature in January is 16-17o C and in July 18-19o C. The landscape is a wood-steppe and has a rich composition of Stipa Zalesskyi and Helictotrichon desertorum. Composition also includes a high mesophyl umbellate (Peucedanum morisonii) on chernozem soils with microphyllous decidious woods (Betula pendula, Populus tremula). The high soil humidity allows the presence of pine woods (Pinus sylvestris) on granite rocks and sphagnum bogs (Sphagnum fuscum, Drosera rotundifolia, Eriophorum gracile). The woods maintain a high species diversity (e.g., Lycopodium complanatum, Goodyera repens, Vaccinium myrtilis, V. vitis -idaea, Linnaea borealis) including more than 100 species of arboreal origin (Gortchakovskyi 1987). Also there are the rare types of steppes consisting of Stipa stenophylla.

The southern part (Karkaraly, Kent, Kysyl-Ray, Bayan-Aul mountains) is the highest altitude region of steppes in Kazakhstan with heights of 1000 –1500 m. It is surrounded by elevated plains and melkosopochniki. In low mountains the average temperature of January is -14-15oC and in July it changes from 19-21oC. The mean daily temperature for the entire vegetative season is 6o. Precipitation varies from 150 mm in the southeast up to 300 mm in northwest. It is necessary to note presence of pine, birch and aspen woods. The relict species, Àlnus glutinosa, grows in the Bayan-Aul mountains. The wet petrophitic steppes consisting of Helictotrichon desertorum have many variants. The mountain-steppe communities from Carex pediformis, Papaver tenellum, Eritrichium rupestre, Androsace ovchinnikoviiare are found at the highest elevations. Also found are Adenophora liliflora, Astragalus propinquis, and Coluria geoides - the rare mesophyl species for these conditions.

Aktau and Ortau mountains (in southeast) lack pinewoods, but here there are southern types of steppes with Stipa kirghisoru and Stipa sareptana and endemic shrub species such as Càragana balchashensis and Caragana bongardiana.

To the east, the low mountains Chingiztau (1000-1300 m) are heterogeneous in geological structure and combined with porphyrites, chalkstones and slates. The average temperature in January is -14-16oC and in July 20-22oC. On mountain slopes can be observe the changing of steppes from desert steppes and dry shrub steppes with Caragana pumila up to meadow steppe with fragments of brushwood (Spiraea trilobata, Caragana arborescens, Daphne altaica). It is element of Altaic type of vegetation. Very interesting endemic species of shrub with a local area - Calophaca howenii is found in foothills.

Biodiversity Features
The landscapes of the Kazakh upland include steppe, shrublands, pinewoods, lakes and wetlands. It features an area of unusual overlap in the range of boreal, steppe and desert fauna. Of special interest are the communities of waterfowl birds of numerous lakes in the limits of steppes, and saiga (together with associated large predators) in the southern desertified steppes. Saiga is the main game animal in this area. Local people kill them for meat and engage in the export of horns, which are used in Eastern medicine. In total, there are about 47 species of mammals, 279 species of birds, (among these are 30 rare species such as nesting populations of short-toed eagle, white-tailed eagle, imperial eagle, saker falcon, white and Dalmatian pelicans, and others) 10 species of reptiles, 10 fish species, thousands of invertebrates. Many of these are rare or endangered.

The following rare mammals can be registered in the ecoregion: desman (Desmana moschata); giant mole rat (Spalax giganteus); marble polecat (Vormela peregusna); typical species are Russian polecat (Mustela eversmanni), fox (Vulpes vulpes), corsac fox (V. corsac), wolf (Canis lupus); marmot (Marmota bobac), ground squirrels (Spermophilus fulvus, Sp. major, Sp. pygmaeus), different groups of rodents (Cricetus cricetus, Lagurus lagurus, Microtus sp.), long-eared hedgehog (Erinaceus auritus), jerboas (Allactaga major, Stylodipus telum), hare (Lepus europaeus). In the forests one can find moose (Alces alces), Siberian roe deer (Capreolus pygargus), lynx (Lynx lynx), common hedgehog ( Erinaceus europaeus), widely spread varying hare (Lepus timidus), badger (Meles meles), ermine (Mustela erminea), weasel (Mustela nivalis), common marten (Martes martes) racoon-like dog (Nyctereutes procyonoides). Just some hundres meters aside there can be herds of saiga. Around the lakes one can meet a wild boar (Sus scrofa). At the same time tipically desert species such as jerboas (Pygerethmus, Pygerethmus pumilio), can be met. Rare forest form which is also registered here is forest marten (Martes martes).

Avifauna is exceptionally rich. Steppe representatives include typical species such as lark (5 species), wheatears, pipits, as well as numerous other unusual and rare species (Chettusia gregaria, Otis tetrax, Anthropoides virgo, Circus macrourus, ?ircus pygargus, Aquila rapax). In some areas great bustard can be found (Otis tarda). Forest areas are characterized with blackcock (Lyrurus tetrix), and other forest birds (Dendrocopos major,Oriolus oriolus,Columba palumbus, Streptopelia turtur, Parus cyanus, Phoenicurus phoenicurus, Anthus trivialis) and others. Birds of prey are very numerous. In one day you can see dozens of inhabited nests of different rare species of birds of prey (Falco tinnunculus, F. vespertinus,F. subbuteo,F. columbarius). Most numerous are waterfowl birds: swans (Cygnus olor Cygnus cygnus), Grey geese (Anser anser) ducks and pochards (Anas platyrhynchos, A. strepera, A. acuta , A. clypeata, A. querquedula, Aythya ferin,Netta rufina, Aythya fuligula), and other species (Fulica atra,Podiceps, Larus, Sterna, Chlidonias, Gelochelidon, Pelecani formes, Charadriiformes.

There are numerous rare nesting species, both on the lakes and in the forests of the ecoregion: (Bragin,1999, Bragi, Bragina 1999): Falco naumanni,Circus macrourus, Pelecanus crispus Pelecanus onocrotalus, Cygnus cygnus, Oxyura leucocephala, Platalea leucorodia, Grus grus, Anthropoides virgo, Haliaeetus albicilla, Aquila shrysaetos, Aquila heliaca, Aquila rapax, ??????? Falco cherrug, Otis tarda, Otis tetrix, Chettusia gregaria, Syrrhaptes paradoxus, Bubo bubo, Larus ichthyaetus. Some of the most important species migrating through the area aere: Cygnus bewickii, Branta ruficollis, Aythya nyroca, Melanitta fusca, Grus leucogeranus, Pandion haliaetus, Falco peregrinus, Numenius tenuirostris), Phoenicopterus roseus, Egretta garzetta, Ardeola ralloides, Plegadis falcinellus, Pterocles orientalis, Haliaeetus leucoryphus, Ancer erythropus. Twelve of these species are included in IUCN Red Data book. During their migration about 3- 3.5 millions of geese fly through the ecoregion, including 23 to 53% of the European population of Ancer erythropus and about 100 % of the population of Branta ruficollis.

Current Status
Agriculture is the main threat for the ecosystems here. In the 50’s, more then 90% of the area of regular chernozems and around 60 % of dry steppes were plowed. This led to serious wind erosion, and dust storms became common. The steppe areas which remain, are considerably modified due to overgrazing.

Types and Severity of Threats
The enormous decrease of saiga’s population was caused by extensive poaching at the beginning of 1990s. They were poached for their horns only (considered useful in Chinese medicine). These horns were then traded illegally. Thousands of males were killed in open fields, horns removed, and bodies left in place. Later in the decade, prices dropped, lower population densities and high prices for gas (needed to follow animals by motorbikes) made this type of poaching less profitable. The poaching that takes place now (for all ungulate species) is mainly to provide meat for local people (especially in winter).

There was a significant decrease in livestock (about 10 %) at the beginning of 90’s associated with the destruction of kolkhozes. Animals were killed and sold for meat. The population of local people is moving to the south. An important part of lands is no longer plowed, and ecosystems have a good chance for rehabilitation. On the other hand poaching for individual needs (for food) is very strong, as well as disturbance of birds during the migratory and nesting periods. Uncontrolled poaching for zoo-export (birds of prey, reptiles, horns of saiga) is a very serious threat to species.

Justification of Ecoregion Delineation
This ecoregion consists of low mountains and foothills of the Kazakh steppe, where the stony meadow and shrub steppe of montane type occur in combination with sparse pine forests. The boundary conforms to the low mountain stony steppes of the Altai-Saur-Tarbagatai and Kazakh melkosopochnik regions (Pereladova et al. 1998).

Bukreev, S.A. 1999. Territorial aspects of bird conservation in Central Asia and Kazakhstan. Moscow.

Grozdetskyi, N.A. and V.A Nikolaev. 1971. Kasakhstan

Gorchakovskyi, P.L. 1987. Lesnye oasisy Kasachskogo melkosopochnica.

Karamysheva, Z.V. and E.I. Rachkovskaya 1973. Botanical geography of the Kazakhstan steppe zone.

Nikolaev, V.A. 1999. Landshafty asiatskich steppei

Pereladova, O., V. Krever, and M. Williams. 1998. Biodiversity conservation in Central Asia, Moscow.

Rachkovskaya, E.I. 1995. Kazakhstan semi-deserts and melkosopochnik. Vegetation Map of Kasakhstan and Middle Asia. Scale 1:2 500 000. Komarov Botanic Institute, Russian Academy of Sciences, Sankt Peterburg.


Smetana, N.G. and E.A. Smetana. 1990. Naurzum nature reserve. Pages 57-67 in V.E. Sokolov, editor. Zapovedniki of the USSR, Volume 6., Moscow.

Syroechkovskii. E.E. 1990. Zapovedniks of Central Asia and Kazakhstan. In V.E. Sokolov, editor. Zapovedniki of the USSR, Volume 6., Moscow.

Prepared by: K.Rachkovskaja, O.Pereladova
Reviewed by: In process