Badkhiz-Karabil semi-desert

June 29, 2012, 7:29 am
Content Cover Image

Badhys, Turkmentistan. Photograph by Olga Pereladova

The Badghyz and Karabil region occupies hilly plateaus north of Hindukush. Areas of Badghyz are covered by a unique xeric savanna ecosystem, dominated by wild pistachio trees (many say it looks like the African savanna). This area contains key populations of Asian wild ass (kulan), goitered gazelle (dzheiran), striped hyena, and (in low numbers) leopard. Other rare or endangered animal species are wild sheep, honey badger, marbled polecat, Indian porcupine, black vulture, and a large number of rare rodents, birds, and reptiles. Spectacular salt depressions with basaltic rock buttes harbor a number of halophytic plants. Badghyz lies on one of the ancient Silk Road routes, but the area was largely abandoned and desertified in the Middle Ages.

Location and General Description

The Badghyz and Karabil region lies within hilly plateaus north of Paropamiz, the northernmost Afghan range of the Hindukush. The region is bordered by Tedzhen (Harirud) river separating Turkmenistan from Iran in the west, Afghanistan in the south and Kugitang mountains in the east. The area between Tedzhen and Murghab rivers is known as Badghyz, the portion further eastward, as Karabil.

The clay and sand soils of the ecoregion lie over a thick layer of continental deposits built of mainly sedimentary rock (sandstone and aleurolite) with occasional volcanic outcrops. The modern plateau is a result of combination of the Neogene and Quaternary orogenesis with erosion and deflation. The erosional relief is formed by large ancient valleys and basins, smoothed out by deflation. Badghyz plateau rises up to 1,225 meters (m), and its hills (bairs) reach up to 200 m in relative height. Closed depressions with salt pans (solonchaks) are characteristic, such as a giant Eroyulanduz depression in southwest Badghyz. The climate of the region is characterized by the marked seasonality of precipitation (200-240 millimeters (mm) annually), which occurs only in winter/early spring, giving an early and short growing season, followed by prolonged drought from May to October. The mean annual temperature is +16.8°C, with a maximum of +47°C and a minimum of -32°C. The warm period lasts for 230 days.

Biodiversity Features

caption Er-oilanduz, Kazakhstan. (Photograph by Olga Pereladova)

Fauna and flora of Badghyz-Karabil ecoregion expresses the mixed biogeographic connections due to its position between Kopetdagh, Paropamiz, and Kugitang Mountains and the giant sand desert of Karakum to the north. The spectacular hilly plateaus are covered with remnants of the savanna-like wild pistachio (Pistacia vera) groves, with dominant herbaceous communities of desert sedge (Carex pachystylis), Poa bulbosa and ephemeroids. The largest remaining pistachio grove is in Badghyz reserve and covers 76,000 hectares (ha) (760 sq. km). There are over 1,100 spp of vascular plants, 75 of them are endemic to this ecoregion (such as Cousinia badghysi, Ferula badrakema, Tulipa kuschkensis). 650 species of vascular plants are found within the protected territory of the Badghyz Reserve. Among them are representatives of the genera Eremurus, Allium, Ixyolirion, Tulipa, Rhamnus, Atraphaxis, Euphorbia, Salvia, Amberboa, Calligonum, Cousinia, Astragalus, Ferula. Vegetation is dominated by ephemeral (annual) and ephemeroid (perennial) grasses and forbs, with dominant species belonging to Poaceae, Brassicaceae, Asteraceae, Caryophyllaceae, Boraginacaeae. Most perennials are typical desert or arid foothill species.

The ecoregion supports at least 40 species of mammals, 270 species of birds (of these, 117 nesting within the Baghyz Reserve), and 40 species of reptiles. Most common among mammals are fox (Vulpes vulpes), wolf (Canis lupus), jackal (Canis aureus), steppe cat (Felis libyca), weasel (Mustela nivalis), ground squirrel (Spermophilus), gerbils (Rhombomys, Meriones), voles (Microtus), hamsters (Calomyscus), desert hedgehogs (Hemiechinus); among birds, larks (Galerida), doves (Streptopelia), wheateaters (Oenanthe), Egyptian vulture (Gyps fulvus), saker falcon (Falco cherrug), hawks (Accipiter nisus, A. badius), buzzard (Buteo rufinus), kite (Milvus korshun), falcons (Falco tinnunculus), buntings (Emberiza), warblers (Sylvia), and shrikes (Lanius). Remaining riparian forests and wetlands along Murghab and Tedzhen rivers house a number of aquatic birds.

Common reptile species in the ecoregion are agamas (Trapelus, Stellio), runners (Eremias), skinks (Ablepharus, Eumeces), geckos (Cyrtopodion), rat snakes (Coluber, Elaphe, Ptyas), gyurza viper (Vipera l?betina), blind wormsnake (Typhlops vermicularis) and cobra (Naja naja oxiana). Among invertebrates of the savanna landscape, termites play important role in forming the region’s soils; their underground passages almost reach the groundwater level. Large salt depressions with basaltic rock buttes (Yeroyulanduz Lake) harbor a number of halophile vertebrate and invertebrate species, many of them rare or endemic, such as gecko Bunopus tuberculatus and scorpion Kraepelinia palpator.

The most spectacular large predator, Turanian tiger (Panthera tigris virgata) lived in this ecoregion in the 19th century (along Murghab river tugai, or desert riparian forest) but was hunted to extinction about 100 years ago. In the 20th century, ecoregion lost another of its big cats, the Asian cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus raddei), a species included in the IUCN Red Data List. From 1930 to 1957 in Badghyz, 25 cheeetahs were shot or captured, and about 70 encounters recorded. Cheetahs were often found in Badghyz and Karabil until the late 1950s. The species is still rarely found in northwestern Turkmenistan but is extinct from Badghyz. Reintroduction of this unique large predator to the Badghyz Reserve is recommended. Another large mammal extirpated from local fauna by the 1950s was the bearded (bezoar) goat (Capra aegagrus) (this species still inhabit areas bordering with the ecoregion to the west).

Many animal species found in the Baghyz-Karabil ecoregion are included in IUCN or local (Turkmenistan) Red Data Lists: honey badger (Mellivora capensis), otter (Lutra lutra seistanica; in the Murghab river valley), corsac fox (Vulpes corsac), leopard (Panthera pardus), sand lynx, or caracal (Caracal caracal michaelis), kulan (Equus hemionus), dzheiran (Gazella subgutturosa), urial (Ovis (orientalis)vignei varentsovi), black vulture (Aegypius monachus), imperial eagle (Aquila heliaca), short-toed eagle (Circaetus gallicus), lesser kestrel (Falco naumanni), Central Asian desert monitor (Varanus griseus caspius). A very common species of reptiles is the central Asian tortoise (Testudo horsfieldii) included in the IUCN Red Data list.

Leopard (Panthera pardus tulliana) is still found in the western, more mountainous part of Badghyz Reserve (Gyaz-Gedyk range). In the 1940s, this population of leopard was quite dense (14 animals were killed within 500 square meters in 1947-48). Currently, leopard is comparatively rare in this area and can be estimated at a level about 10-15 animals. Striped hyena (Hyaena hyaena) is another large predator and scavenger still existing in this ecoregion. Its population has been improving due to the increase in ungulate numbers.

Kulan, or onager (Equus hemionus onager) is the subspecies of Asian wild ass currently found only in this ecoregion. In the 19th century, thousands of onagers roamed Turkmenistan. By 1935, only about 500 animals were left, all of them in Badghyz. Their number continued to decrease until the Badghyz Reserve was established in 1941, for the specific purpose to protect kulan. While only 250 onagers were left at this time, in the 1980-1990s this species has shown a rise in numbers due to protection measures. In 1995-96 the Badghyz Reserve had about 7,300 onagers and this species was no longer considered endangered. Kulans overpopulated its natural habitats, which lead to their serious destruction and damage to the surrounding agricultural lands. However, without expertise and sustainable management, heavy poaching developed, which lead to the following population decline:

Year 1995-1996 1998 1999 2000, May
Number of Animals 5000 2400 1500 300 ?

Since 2001 a WWF grant started, and serious measure, carried out in cooperation with the Ministry of environment allowed to approve situation seriously, so that we can be sure, that there are not less then 600 kulans in the ecoregion now.

Goitered gazelle, or dzheiran (Gazella subgutturosa subgutturosa) was very numerous in Turkmenistan in the first half of the 20th century but were decimated by hunting. Today, however, Badghyz Reserve was the only place where gazelles were relatively secure; their population reached 3,000 to 4,000 animals; now there are about 500-700 animals. The third large ungulate in Badghyz is the wild sheep, or urial (Ovis (orientalis) vignei varentsovi) which was heavily hunted but remains common within the Badghyz Reserve (the most recent estimates approve about 700, no more than 1000 animals). Even here, the tendency is towards population decline from habitat alteration and hunting.

Current Status

Badghyz lies on one of the ancient Silk Road routes, but the area has largely deserted and desertified since the Middle Ages., but with this desiccation process likely starting at least two millennia ago.

Turkmenistan is a newly independent state just developing its environmental protection laws. The country signed the Biodiversity Convention in 1996. Currently, specially protected area in this ecoregion lies within the Badghyz Reserve, established in 1941 (area 87,680 ha). Due to low funding, the nature conservation and research organizations in Turkmenistan have been suffering a steep decline in the last 10 years. The existing nature reserve in Badghyz lacks effective management, and the unique landscape could be altered irreversibly.

Types and Severity of Threats

During the past two centuries, a lot of the natural pistachio woodland in this ecoregion have been cleared for firewood (also providing a high-quality smelting charcoal) and overgrazing by the increasing amount of domestic cattle (sheep, camels), causing soil erosion. Pistachio forests are cut and fragmented by local population, being used for firewood. Habitats are disturbed by overgrazing, hunting, logging, and collecting pistachio nuts. Large fires, many due to human presence, damage wildlife populations; in 1983, about 110 square kilometers (km2) of pistachio woodland was burned by such fire.

All ungulates are seriously affected by human influence in this ecoregion. Wild sheep are threatened primarily from traditional hunting by the local population, but they are also the prized objects for foreign hunters. Another critical point is water availability, since there are very few natural water sources in Badghyz (some only have salt water; wild sheep tolerate water salt content up to 20-22 grams/liter). 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

In Afghanistan, the semi-desert communities dominated by Haloxylon salicornicum and Calligonum-Aristida from Freitag’s natural vegetation map were used for the ecoregion boundaries. In Central Asia, this ecoreigon includes semi-desert ephemeroid-sagebrush and savannoids and open, arid pistachio woodlands from Pereladova’s map of Central Asian ecosystems.

Additional Information on this Ecoregion

Further Reading

  • Atamuradov, H., G.N. Fet, V. Fet, R. Valdez, and W. Feldman. 1999. Biodiversity, genetic diversity, and projected areas in Turkmenistan. Journal of Sustainable Forestry 9(1-2):73-88.
  • Fet, V., and K.I. Atamuradov, editors. 1994. Biogeography and ecology of Turkmenistan. Kluwer Academic Publishers, Dordrecht. ISBN: 0792327381
  • Freitag, H. 1971. Studies in the natural vegetation of Afghanistan. Pages 89-106 in P.H. Davis, Harper, and I.C. Hedge, editors, Plant life of South-West Asia. The Botanical Society of Edinburgh, Edinburgh.
  • Kamelin, R.V., editor. 1990. Pistachio in Badghyz. Nauka, Leningrad, (in Russian).
  • Lukarevskii, V.S. 1995. Leopard. Pages 148-157 in V.V. Kucheruk, editor. Mlekopitayuschie Turkmenistana (Mammals of Turkmenistan). Ashgabat, Ylym.
  • Lukarevskii, V.S. 2001. Leopard, striped hyena and wolf in Turkmenistan. Moscow, "Signal".
  • Pereladova, O., V. Krever, and M. Williams. 1998. Biodiversity conservation in Central Asia – Analysis of Modern Situation and Project Portfolio. WWF, Moscow.
  • Sokolov, V.E., Y.K. Gorelov, A.V. Drozdov, and R.V. Kamelin. 1990. Badghyz Reserve. Pages 217-237 in V.Y. Sokolov and Y.Y. Syroyechkovsky, editors, Zapovedniki Srednej Azii i Kazakhstana (Reserves of Central Asia and Kazakhstan). Mysl: Moscow (in Russian).

Disclaimer: This article contains information that was originally published by the World Wildlife Fund. Topic editors and authors for the Encyclopedia of Earth have edited its content and added new information. The use of information from the World Wildlife Fund should not be construed as support for or endorsement by that organization for any new information added by EoE personnel, or for any editing of the original content.




Fund, W. (2012). Badkhiz-Karabil semi-desert. Retrieved from


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