PICTURED: Southern Ustyurt Kaplankyr, Kazakhstan. Photo credit: Mark Pestov II.
A group of spectacular mountain and desert landscapes were targeted, assessed, and recommended by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) World Heritage Program for Natural Heritage Site listing under the World Heritage Convention. The Cold Winter Deserts of Central Asia as they were described in the report cover the five Central Asian countries of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan.
The IUCN is the world’s largest international conservation organization as well as the officially advisory body on nature under the World Heritage Convention from the UN. As such they occasionally produce reports on the potential different landscapes have for Natural Heritage Site status.
While sites like the Pyramids, Paris, Machu Picchu, and the Great Wall of China are famous World Heritage Sites for cultural value, Natural Heritage Sites have a different set of criteria, such as being an outstanding example of biological processes including evolution of plants and animals, geological evolution, specifically as they relate to certain geological periods, or vitally important areas for conservation and biological study.
Famous Natural Sites include:
In this case the IUCN produced the report based on a decision from the convention to identify sites that specifically meet criterion (ix) and (x). In World Heritage Jargon, (ix) means the site represents an outstanding example of ongoing biological processes, especially as it relates to the evolution of plants and animals in a certain environment, while criteria (x) refers to a site that’s extremely valuable for research into certain plants, animals, and ecosystems, and for their conservation.
The Cold Winter Deserts of Central Asia
A combination of several existing protected areas morphed into one massive transboundary site representing the natural wonders of the deserts of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan would be the largest possible implementation of IUCN’s vision.
“These unique landscapes harbour emblematic species for this region, including wild herds of the vulnerable goitered gazelle, the Asiatic wild ass and the urial,” reads a press release from the IUCN.
“They also serve as an important breeding and migratory areas for bird species such as the eastern imperial eagle, the houbara bustard or the saker falcon. These areas are currently threatened by overexploitation and large-scale infrastructure development. A possible World Heritage status would help strengthen their conservation”.
Included in this package would be a 21 million year-old dried up sea called the Ustyurt Plateau, a vast and low-lying desert between the Caspian and Aral Seas. Stretching across the three “Stans” mentioned above, an Ustyurt Plateau Site would include three existing protected areas and comprise more than 200,000 square kilometers.
These deserts are unique in the world for their extreme cold and panoply of endemic flora and fauna. The IUCN note that a designation of these magisterial landscapes would fill in gaps in the World Heritage inventory where no such landscape is included, as well as only possessing 3 natural sites in all the Central Asian republics.
2 more for good measure
Rounding off the suggestions for a massive Cold Winter Deserts site is one area in Turkmenistan, and another which shares borders with Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.
Badhyz and Kopetdag Mountains consist of 4 protected areas totalling 1,447 kilometers of “relict pistachio savannahs, ancient extinct volcanoes, and brackish seasonal lakes,” explains the report.
“One of the most spectacular reserves in Central Asia, its significant endemic and threatened flora and fauna species make the site of great significance for [on site] conservation”.
The other is one of the oldest protected areas in all Central Asia. Established in 1928, Repetek State Biosphere Reserve encircles 346 square kilometers in the southeastern quadrant of the Karakum Desert.
Together these 2 sites would fit into the Cold Winter Deserts of Central Asia proposed site to create something entirely unique on the UNESCO World Heritage inventory, and demonstrate another victory in a long line of conservation battles across Central Asia.