Biological diversity in the mountains of Central Asia
The Mountains of Central Asia hotspot consists of two of Asia’s major mountain ranges, the Pamir and the Tien Shan. Politically, the hotspot’s 860,000 square kilometers include southern Kazakhstan, most of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, eastern Uzbekistan, western China, northeastern Afghanistan, and a small part of Turkmenistan. The hotspot has many mountains above 6,500 meters in elevation, as well as major desert basins, the largest of which is the Fergana Valley. The hotspot holds a large number of endemic plant species, but water stress and civil conflict have placed much of its unique biodiversity under serious threat.
The Pamir mountain range, which includes the Eastern Pamir, Western Pamir and Pamir-Alai Mountains, was known to early Persians as the “roof of the world.” The Eastern Pamir are plateau-like with limited altitudinal variation, while the Western Pamir are characterized by sharp ridges, steep slopes and deep valleys and gorges. The hotspot’s highest peak is Kongur, which rises to 7,719 meters in the Chinese Pamir; four other peaks are above 7,000 meters. The 300-km-long, 150-km-wide Fergana valley separates the Pamir from the Tien Shan Mountains, a complex series of ranges extending for 2,500 kilometers from west to east. The hotspot also holds more than 20,000 glaciers, covering around 18,000 km2.
The climate in the Mountains of Central Asia is generally arid. Precipitation falls mainly in winter and spring and varies from more than 1,500 millimeters in the Gissar Range in the west of the hotspot to less than 100 millimeters in the Eastern Pamir.
The predominant vegetation types in the hotspot are desert, semi-desert and steppe on all the lower slopes and foothills and in some of the outlying ranges and major basins. Patches of riverine woodland survive in the Ili valley and a few other places. At higher altitudes, steppe communities, dominated by various species of grasses and herbs occur, while shrub communities are widespread in the lower steppe zone. Spruce forests, the only coniferous forest type in the hotspot, occur on the moist northern slopes of the Tien Shan, while open juniper or archa forest occurs widely between 900 and 2,800 meters. Subalpine and alpine meadows occur in the western part of the mountains, from 2,000 to 4,000 meters and above. At the very highest and coldest elevations, there is limited vegetation cover and diversity, with cushion plants, snow-patch plants and tundra-like vegetation.
Unique and Threatened Biodiversity
The flora of the Mountains of Central Asia is a mix of Boreal, Siberian, Mongolian, Indo-Himalayan and Iranian elements. There are more than 5,500 known species of vascular plants in the hotspot, about 1,500 of which are endemic. There are also 64 endemic genera, including 21 from the family Umbelliferae and 12 from the family Compositae. The endemic flora includes several tree species, grasses (such as Atraphaxis muschketovii and Stipa karatavica), and numerous herbs. There are many species of wild onion, including Allium pskemense, a very rare large onion found only in a small part of the Pskem Range of the Western Tien Shan.
A type of walnut-fruit forest unique to Central Asia can be found above the steppe zone in warm sheltered coves in the western Pamir-Alai and Tien Shan. The fruit and nut trees in these diverse forests include walnut (Juglans regia), almonds (Amygdalus communis and A. bucharensis), pears (Pyrus korshinskyi and P. regelii), plums (Prunus sogdiana and P. ferganica), and cherry (Cerasus mahaleb), along with maples (Acer turkestanicum and A. semenovii) and a few Chinese walnuts (Juglans cathayana) that survive in one location in the eastern Tien Shan. This ancient forest type contains ancestors of domestic fruit varieties and is an important storehouse of wild genetic diversity. About 90 percent of this habitat has been lost in the last 50 years.
More than 16 endemic species of tulip grow in the steppe and meadow zones of the Mountains of Central Asia. The largest of these is the rare, brilliant orange-red Greig’s tulip (Tulipa greigii), often known as the king of the tulips, which is only found in western Tien Shan. Collecting for horticulture and decoration has led to the decline of many of the hotspot’s tulip species.
Although nearly 500 bird species occur regularly in this hotspot, none are endemic to the region. Many species belong to genera typical of the high ranges of Asia, such as redstarts (Phoenicurus), accentors (Prunella) and rosefinches (Carpodacus). Coniferous forests on the northern side of the Tien Shan form the southern limits of several boreal species, including the black grouse (Lyrurus tetrix) and northern hawk owl (Surnia ulula), while desert birds, including the great bustard (Otis tarda, VU) and houbara bustard (Chlamydotis undulate, VU) occur in the low-altitude zones.
The Mountains of Central Asia are an important stronghold for birds of prey, with important breeding populations of several species, including the golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos), the imperial eagle (A. heliaca, VU), steppe eagle (A. rapax), booted eagle (Hieraaetus pennatus), lammergeier (Gypaetus barbatus), black vulture (Aegypius monachus), Eurasian griffon (Gyps fulvus), Himalayan griffon (G. himalayensis), peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus) and saker falcon (F. cherrug, EN).
Six of the 140-odd mammals found in the hotspot are endemic: Menzibier’s marmot (Marmota menzbieri, VU), found only in the western Tien Shan above 2,000 meters, and Ili pika (Ochotona iliensis, VU), a small species of lagomorph found only in the Chinese portion of the Tien Shan; two susliks or ground squirrels (Spermophilus ralli and S. relictus); the Pamir shrew (Sorex bucharensis); and the Alai mole vole (Ellobius alaicus, EN), which is known only from the Alai Mountains in southern Kyrgyzstan.
The hotspot also holds a variety of mountain ungulates, including three endemic subspecies of the argali wild sheep (Ovis ammon, VU), among them the Marco Polo sheep (O. a. polii), whose magnificent curling horns have made it a favored target of trophy hunters. The Siberian ibex (Capra sibirica) is the most numerous and most widespread species, occurring in all parts of the area above the treeline, while the blue sheep (Pseudois nayaur), a typical Tibetan and Trans-Himalayan species, reaches the southeast corner of the hotspot.
The Saiga antelope (Saiga tatarica, CR), a species associated with the flat plains of central Asia, inhabits the lower elevations of this hotspot. The antelope has experienced a dramatic decline since the 1970s due to habitat destruction and hunting.
Because of their location in the central part of the Asian continent, the Mountains of Central Asia play an important connecting role in the distribution of many important montane Asian species. Perhaps the best-known symbol of this fauna is the snow leopard (Uncia uncia, EN), a species found in the alpine and subalpine zones of the hotspot. The species has declined here, as elsewhere, as a result of poaching for its valued fur and a depletion of its prey base through illegal hunting.
Nearly 60 reptiles are found in the hotspot, though only one is endemic, a skink, Asymblepharus alaicus. Diversity is highest in the lower altitudes, in desert and semi-desert areas. There are ten species of Eremias lizards and eight toad-headed agamas (Phrynocephalus spp.).
Although only seven species of amphibians have been recorded, four of them are endemic, including a salamander (Ranodon sibiricus, EN) found only in the Dzhungarian Alatau Range at the northern end of the Tien Shan. One recently described species, the frog (Rana terentievi) is known only from southern Tajikistan, though they may also occur in adjacent parts of Afghanistan.
This arid hotspot has less than 30 freshwater fish species, five of which are endemic. Endemism is centered in the Lake Issyk-Kul Basin of Kyrgyzstan, which lacks outlets to connect it with any other bodies of water. In addition, the Kugitang blind cave fish (Troglocobitis starostini) is found only in a small area of the Kugitang Mountains at the southwestern end of the hotspot.
Although a full inventory of invertebrates for the hotspot is lacking, there is a rich insect diversity in the alpine meadows. Eleven of 26 species of apollo butterflies known to occur in this hotspot are endemic. There are also 87 endemic mollusks, including the Kokand freshwater clam (Colletopterum kokandicum), which is restricted to one lake in the Fergana Valley.
The Mountains of Central Asia have long been exploited for grazing, food, timber and fuel. The last few decades, a steady rise in human population (there are about 20 million people in the hotspot) and domestic livestock, and the associated need for land and resources, has made human activity unsustainable in many areas. This has been exacerbated over the last 10-15 years by political and economic changes in the countries of the former Soviet Union. Habitat destruction, overgrazing, and unregulated hunting of animals and collection of plants have emerged as the three major and continuing threats in the hotspot, such that only around 20 percent of the original native habitat remains in pristine condition.
Virtually all of the land in the lowland desert belt and in many foothill areas has been converted to agricultural use. As coal and other fuels have become unavailable and unaffordable, the cutting of trees and shrubs for fuel and building materials has increased. This, together with forest fires, has greatly reduced the area of these habitats, especially in the case of the steppe-shrub communities and the unique and valuable walnut-fruit forests. As an example, between 1995 and 1998, more than 4 500 km2 of forest in Kazakhstan were lost due to fires. Expansion of settlements, construction of roads and other infrastructure, recreational facilities, mining and other economic activities have also contributed to habitat destruction and fragmentation.
Many areas have been affected by overgrazing as numbers of domestic livestock throughout the region have increased sharply in recent years. This is particularly the case in the foothills and lower slopes, as well as the alpine and subalpine meadows.
Since the break-up of the former Soviet Union, poaching, especially of larger mammals and birds, has increased sharply. Mountain ungulates are increasingly seen as a source of food, and snow leopard numbers in Kyrgyzstan are estimated to have decreased by 75 percent during the 1990s, as a result of heavy hunting pressure on them and their prey. Falcons are captured and exported to the Middle East, where they fetch a high price from falconers. Unregulated collection of plants also poses a problem to native species; crocuses and tulips have disappeared or become very rare in several areas.
Other threats include the impacts of civil conflict in Tajikistan in the 1990s and the recent war in Afghanistan, as well as the siting of minefields along international borders, which pose a threat to large animals. Damming, reservoir construction and irrigation have disrupted water supplies and drainage systems, and many wetlands have been drained for agriculture. Overfishing and the introduction of alien species further threaten freshwater ecosystems.
Finally, the long-term effects of global warming pose a threat to the environment of the Mountains of Central Asia. It is estimated that glaciers in the area have shrunk by nearly 20 percent in the last 30-35 years, and the long-term destabilizing effects of the melting of frozen upper slopes may lead to the decline or disappearance of many montane taxa in the hotspot.
Conservation Action and Protected Areas
Overall, only about seven percent of the hotspot is under some form of official protection, in nature reserves or other protected areas. Although virtually all of this is in protected areas in IUCN categories I to IV, many reserves are small and isolated and some are not yet fully functioning. Since the break-up of the former Soviet Union, there has been a dramatic decrease in funding, patrols and other management activities in protected areas in this region.
The smallest protected area in the hotspot is the 11 hectare Chinese Walnut Nature Reserve, while Pamir National Park in Tajikistan and the Taxkorgan Nature Reserve in China both cover 15,000 km2. Other large protected areas include Issyk-Kul Biosphere Reserve (6,298 km2), in Kyrgyzstan; and Mount Tomur Nature Reserve (1,000 km2) and Boghdad Mountain Biosphere Reserve (1,000 km2), both in the Chinese sector of the Tien Shan. Other notable reserves in the countries of the former Soviet Union include Aksu-Dzhebagly in western Tien Shan, Sary-Chelek in Kyrgyzstan, and Kugitang Strict Nature Reserve in Turkmenistan.
Because international borders often follow mountain ridges, the need for transboundary reserves to protect full mountain ecosystems is increasingly being recognized within the region. Regional cooperation between the countries of the former Soviet Union has increased and a Central Asian Mountain Information Network and a Regional Red List program have been established to coordinate assessments and set up a database of threatened species.
Many international donors are involved in the region, including the Global Environment Facility, whose Western Tien Shan Project supports biodiversity conservation in three counties of western Tien Shan. WWF and Fauna and Flora International are also active in the region. The International Snow Leopard Trust and NABU, a German nature conservation organization, are working on snow leopard conservation in Kyrgyzstan. The governments of Switzerland and Kyrgyzstan are working together to manage remnant walnut forests in Kyrgyzstan, and the University of Berne has set up a program to promote sustainable use of pastures in Central Asia.
Several initiatives in the region are taking a wider approach to issues affecting the environment. A Global Mountain Summit, held in Kyrgyzstan in 2002, explored united approaches for mountain development. The Asian Development Bank and the Swiss government sponsored a Regional Strategy for Sustainable Development of the Mountain Regions of Central Asia. Other programs include awareness raising and education, and ecotourism and trekking initiatives, which, if properly planned, can contribute to the local economy and gain support for conservation.
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