Geographical Features Conservation
As recently as the late 20th century, saiga antelope
(Saiga tatarica) were spread across the steppes to the
east of Lake Baskunchak. Though their winter habitat lay in nearby
Kazakhstan, their migration paths brought them near the freshwater
Lake Karasun, an important source of drinking water. But due to
increased hunting outside the reserve and competition for pastures
from domestic flocks, saiga numbers have fallen and seasonal migrations
become less regular. Nonetheless, within the last decade herds
of tens of thousand have been seen crossing through the reserve.
Large herds of saiga may also be seen on Mount Bolshoye Bogdo
and in other parts of the reserve. Within the zapovednik, the
antelopes major predators are wolves (Canis lupus).
Because of the reserves location on the dry steppes of
southwestern Russia, semi-desert species dominate. Gerbils (Meriones
meridianus, M. tamariscinus), jerboas (Allactaga major,
A. elate, Dipus sagittar), and hamsters (Cricetus cricetus,
Cricetulus eversmanni, C. migratorius) are among the many
rodents that live in the zapovednik. Ground squirrels (Citellus
maximus, C. pygmaeus), are particularly common, and serve
as the most important prey for the endangered marbled polecat
(Vormela peregusna). Though quite rare southwestern Russia,
the marbled polecat is thriving in the zapovednik due to optimal
nesting sites and abundant food. The Siberian polecat (Mustela
eversmanni) is the most common predator in the reserve, and
also the subject of intense poaching. Two of polecats relatives,
the ermine (M. erminea) and weasel (M. nivalis)
also make their homes in the zapovednik.
Freshwater lakes and pools in the protected area draw a variety
of animals from across the arid lands east of the Volga River.
Eared hedgehogs (Erinaceus auritus), a typical steppe species,
are common. Red foxes (Vulpes vulpes) are common everywhere
in the reserve; the taller corsac fox (Vulpes corsac) prefers
open spaces. Golden jackals (Canis aureus) and African
wildcats (Felis libyca) have been spotted in the zapovednik,
and even moose (Alces alces) and roe deer (Capreolus
capreolus) occasionally wander into the reserve from their
watering places along the Volga River. Though not native to the
region, raccoon dogs (Nycterutes procyonoides) were introduced
to the Astrakhan region in 1953, and still sometimes appear in
Numerous caves in the reserve provide ample habitats for nine
species of bats (Myotis spp., Nyctalus spp., Vespertilio
The abundance of rodents draws numerous birds of prey, many of
which are endangered, such as the steppe eagle (Aquila rapax),
saker falcon (Falco cherrug), golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos).
Other rare birds that nest in the reserve include the blackwinged
stilt (Himantopus himantopus), avocet (Recurvirostra
avosetta), and stone curlew (Burhinus oedicnemus).
Many avian species pass along Lake Baskunchak and Mount Bolshoye
Bogdo as part of their seasonal migrations. Toward the end of
February, as the snow melts, temporary pools and streams form
across the steppes, creating convenient stopover points for a
host of migrating waterfowl. By April the sun and hot wind burn
away the majority of these pools and streams, leaving only a few
wetland areas in the lowest elevations. Several ducks (Anas
platyrhynchos) and ruddy shelducks (Tadorna ferruginea)
swim in the saline Lake Baskunchak, but most of the water birds
grebes (Podiceps spp.), red-crested pochard (Netta
rufina), mergansers (Mergus merganser, M. albellus),
and common goldeneyes (Bucephala clangula) find
haven from the heat in the reserves permanent freshwater
lakes. Many birds of prey find a tasty meal in these lakes
population of Crucian carp (Carassius carassius).
Each spring elegant demoiselle cranes (Anthropoides virgo),
endangered worldwide, enter the reserve. Pairs of the cranes,
who mate for life, begin courtship rituals, running and jumping
with wings raised, bowing and turning pirouettes. In August the
crane families join together to form a flock and fly away, returning
year after year to build their nests in the same sites.
Larks (Calandrella spp., Galerida cristata, Melanocorypha
spp., Eremophila alpestris, Alauda arvensis
) are the most common birds in semi-desert areas of the zapovednik.
Wheatears (Oenanthe spp.) build their nest in the abandoned
burrows of rodents. Gray partridges (Perdix perdix), nightjars
(Caprimulgus europaeus), and tawny pipits (Anthus campestris)
build their nests under hanging bushes.
The artificial groves of fruit trees planted in the reserve also
offer nesting sites to a variety of birds. Various falcons (Falco
tinnuculus, F. subbuteo, F. vespertinus) are the most common.
Other birds common in these woodland areas are the long-eared
owl (Asio otus), white-tailed eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla),
and woodpeckers (Dendrocopos major, D. minor, Picus
Protecting arid parts of the Astrakhan region is particularly
important for preserving reptile life. There are a multitude of
reptiles in around Lake Baskunchak and Mt. Bolshoye Bogdo, yet
to this day they are poorly researched. Scientists have observed
numerous lizards, including two species of desert runners (Eremias
arguta, E. velox), spotted toad-headed agamas (Phrynocephalus
guttatus), and ground geckos (Alsophylax pipiens).
Several snakes, including the large whip snake (Coluber jugularis),
four-lined ratsnake (Elaphe quatuorlineata sauromates),
grass snake (Natrix natrix), and Ancistrodon halys caraganus
also make their homes in the dry environs of Mount Bolshoye Bogdo.
Little vegetation can grow on the dry, alkaline plains of Bogdinsko-Baskunchaksky
Zapovednik. Nonetheless, the varied environments of Mount Bolshoye
Bogdo and Lake Baskunchak support surprisingly diverse plant communities.
Scientists have identified 323 species of vascular plants, including
about 50 trees and shrubs; most of the plants are grasses and
ephemerals typical found in semi-desert landscapes. Wormwoods
(Artemisia lerchiana, A. tschernieviana) dominate,
together with bulbous bluegrass (Eremopyrum triticeum),
drooping brome (Festuca beckeri), and feather grasses (Stipa
Much of the zapovedniks vegetation clusters around sources
of water. The lush river ravines are filled with the cinquefoil
Potentilla bifurca, thyme (Thymus spp.), and the
deep purple spikes of the sage Salvia tesquicula. Salt-loving
plants such as Nitraria schoberi, Salicornia perbacea,
and Halocnemum strobilaceum thrive in the salt marshes
around Lake Baskunchak. Reeds (Phragmites australis), quackgrass
(Elytrigia repens), and Eliocharis grow along freshwater
lakes and ponds. Many decades ago, orchards were planted in several
parts of the reserve, and still grow there to this day. Most notable
among them is Green Garden, a 219-hectare grove of Lombardy poplars
(Populus nigra), elms (Ulmus minor. U. pumila),
maples (Acer negudo), oaks (Quercus sp.), and fruit-bearing
Ten rare or endangered plants grow in the reserve. The common
tulip and Biebersteins tulip (Tulipa gesneriana, T. biebersteiniana)
bring color in early spring, dotting hillsides in reds, yellows,
and purples. Other rare plants include the wormwood Artemisia
salsoloides, Delphinium puniceum, feathergrass (Stipa
pennata), red-stem thyme (Thymus cimicinus), short-leaved
asparagus (Asparagus brachyphyllus), catchfly
(Silene helmanii), and Glycyrrhiza korshinskyi.
A number of locally endangered plants also grow in the reserve:
one particularly notable find was the discovery in 1986 of brittle
ferns (Cystopteris fragilis) in Crystal Cave.
Covering an area of 12,000 ha, Lake Baskunchak is the largest
salt lake in all of Russia. More than 25 streams flow into the
lake, the largest of which is the saline Gorkaya Rechka, or Bitter
Stream in English. Many minerals and mineral salts, including
Epsom, Bishophyte, Astrakhanite, bromide, iodide, rubidium, and
cesium tint the salt formations a palette of varied colors, ranging
from pink in the south to light blue in the north.
In sharp contrast to the lowland lake, Mount Bolshoye Bogdo rises
152.5 meters above sea level. The mountain and its environs were
sharply carved by karst processes, leaving a web of basins, ravines,
sink holes, rock pillars, and grottos. Beneath the surface of
the ground lie caves and narrow shafts, many of which have yet
to be explored.
The caves that have been explored, however, have dazzled their
surveyors. Surprise Cave opens with a vertical shaft 16 meters
deep that drops into a large hall with a small lake in its center.
Crystal Cave extends nearly 100 meters in length and 30 meters
in depth. Its name comes from the crystal gypsum found
in its three halls. Baskunchakskaya Cave, which was discovered
in 1939, is the largest in the Caspian region. An ancient stream
once flowed through the rock, leaving characteristic meanders
and terraces. With three entrances leading down 30 meters, the
cave is a maze of rooms, galleries, narrow passages, and rock
formations, and still has yet to be explored fully. Indeed, though
about 30 caves have been found around Lake Baskunchak, scientists
expect that many more exist that simply have yet to be discovered.
Moreover, many caves are still in the process of formation as
water slowly carves through underground rock. The regions
geology is dynamic. A fault line that runs directly through the
zapovednik continues to push Mount Bolshoye Bogdo upward as Lake
Baskunchak falls at a speed of about one millimeter per year.
Though not as stunning as the caves of Mount Bolshoye Bogdo or
the painted salt crystals of Lake Baskunchak, the plains surrounding
these two natural features are also of interest to scientists.
There are many "microlandscapes" around Lake Baskunchak:
steppes, desert, caves, and salt-marsh all have different features.
Three small freshwater lakes in the reserve provide drinking water
to animals year-round, though their water level varies sharply
according to the amount of precipitation. In dry years, they nearly
disappear. About 8-10 centimeters of light brown loamy soil cover
the surface of the ground, and mineral-rich clays are found in
a palette of yellows, reds, grays, blues, greens, and browns.
Layers of salt rock and gypsum lie beneath the soil.
The region is classified as semi-desert, receiving less than
30 cm of precipitation annually. Summer temperatures rise above
25 degrees Celsius, falling in winter to nearly 10. A thin
layer of snow usually covers the ground from the end of December
until early March. Eastern winds bring dust storms during dry
periods of spring and autumn, on average four days per year.
The zapovednik is located in the Akhtubinsky District of the
Scientists began promoting the foundation of protected areas
in the Astrakhanskaya Oblast in the early 20th century.
But efforts to create a unified network of nature reserves in
the lower Volga region began in earnest in the 1950s and 1960s.
The dry steppes around Lake Baskunchak and Mount Bolshoye Bogdo
presented particular interest, and in time various protected areas
were formed. 1979 brought the foundation of the first two natural
monuments in the Astrakhanskaya Oblast, one of which was Mount
Bolshoye Bogdo. In 1983 Green Garden Natural Monument was founded
several kilometers south of the mountain, followed by Urochishche
Sharbulak Natural Monument on the shores of Lake Baskunchak
The inclusion of Astrakhansky Zapovednik into UNESCOs list
of biosphere reserves in the early 1980s brought international
attention to the ecosystems of the Astrakhanskaya Oblast, including
the area around Lake Baskunchak. Thanks to the tireless efforts
of the regional administration and financial resources of international
organizations, a 53,700-hectare tract of land that included the
three existing natural monuments was set aside as Bogdinsko-Baskunchaksky
Zakaznik in 1993. The zakaznik was the first federal-level zakaznik
in the Astrakhanskaya Oblast, and offered significantly more protection
to the regions ecosystems than the earlier natural monuments,
which together had covered only 2,420 hectares.
Four years later, in November 1997, 18,480 hectares of the zakaznik
were turned into a zapovednik. Bureaucracy and red tape held up
the actual functioning of the zapovednik, which received financial
backing only in 1999.
Today the reserve is still in the process of formation, both
ecologically and administratively. For many years, these steppes
were used and overused as pasturelands for domesticated
animals, who competed with wild animals for feeding grounds and
degraded natural plant communities. Now under protection, these
plains are gradually returning to a more natural state. Nonetheless,
people in nearby towns continue to poach on zapovednik lands,
and commanders at a nearby military base that once trained and
used roads in the reserve often fail to recognize the new inviolability
of the protected area.
Zapovednik organizers also hope to transfer administration of
the remaining 35,200 hectares of the old Bogdinsko-Baskunchaksky
Zakaznik to the control of the zapovednik, turning the zakaznik
into a buffer zone for the zapovednik. In effect, the zakaznik
already plays this role, but centralizing the administration of
the two reserves would remove bureaucratic hurdles and increase
the effectiveness of the environmental and educational missions
of conservation efforts in the Bogdinsko-Baskunchaksky region.
The Natural Complex of Bogdinsko-Baskunchaksky State Nature
Zapovednik and its Protection. Works of Bogdinsko-Baskunchaksky
State Nature Zapovednik, Vol. 1. Y. S. Chuikov, ed. Astrakhan:
State Committee on Environmental Protection of Astrakhanskaya
Zapovedniks and National Parks of Russia. Moscow: EcoCenter
Additional information provided by zapovednik staff.
Text written by Lisa Woodson.
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