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Established:  1995

Size: 9,465 ha (946 km2)

Buffer Zone: planned


Chekin, Aleksei Valentinovich, Director


ul. Pionerskaya, 70

p. Orlovsky,

Rostov Oblast

Russia 347510

Tel: +7 (863-75) 3-14-10

© 2002 Igor Shpilenok

If the forest is known for its grandeur, then the steppe is known for its wide-open spaces.  Rostovsky Zapovednik, in the Rostov Province of southern Russia, protects some of the last virgin steppes on Earth, remnants of open grassland that have never been plowed.  Nestled in the valley of the Manych-Gudilo Reservoir, the nature reserve safeguards islands and coastal habitats that are important nesting areas for rare birds such as spoonbills and demoiselle cranes.  A herd of wild horses inhabits the largest island in the protected area, filling the hooves of now diminished or extinct large herbivores that used to maintain steppe ecosystems.



Rostovsky Zapovednik Images
Rostovsky Zapovednik Facts

Images of Rostovsky Zapovednik
Click on each photo to see a large version.

© 2002 Igor Shpilenok

Whooper swans nest on Lake Manych-Gudilo along with other birds.

© 2002 Gennady Kurbatov

2002 A herd of 100 wild horses lives on Vodny Island in the zapovednik.

© 2002
Igor Shpilenok

An egret wades along the shore of Lake

© 2002
Igor Shpilenok

Grey heron chicks wait for their mother to bring
fish from the lake.

© 2002
Igor Shpilenok

Rich grasses support wild horses, who in turn
maintain steppe ecosystems.


© 2002
Igor Shpilenok

Rare spoonbill chicks fly south with their parents in the fall.

© 2002
Igor Shpilenok

Pelicans, spoonbills, and other birds feed along
the lake shore at sunset.

© 2002
Igor Shpilenok

Demoiselle cranes gather in autumn before flying south for the winter.

Rostovsky Zapovednik Facts:
AnimalsVegetationGeographical FeaturesConservation StatusReferences


The rolling, lusciously green hills of Rostovsky Zapovednik are home to some 50 mammals, many of which are small herbivores and the animals that prey on them.  Jerboa (Allactaga jaculus), grey hamster (Cricetulus migratorius), pygmy ground squirrel (Spermophilus pygmaeus), and European hare (Lepus europaeus) seek shelter in the wide-open steppe in underground dens to escape predation by Corsac fox (Vulpes corsac), wolf (Canis lupus), and raccoon dog (Nyctereutes procyonoides). Though the marbled polecat (Vormela peregusna) is also a predator, it might find itself on the menu of wolves and foxes.  The range of the endangered polecat has diminished dramatically over the past two centuries due to loss of steppe habitat to grazing and farmlands.

A herd of over 100 wild Don horses (Equus caballus) inhabits the largest protected island – a 12 kilometer-long island called Vodny in the Ostrovnoy section of the zapovednik.  The horses have been wild since 1953 when the Manych River was dammed, forming the Proletarskoye Reservoir.  The reservoir cut off Vodny from the mainland, and though owners tried to collect their horses, the animals kept returning to the island to graze on the lush grasses.  Finally, they were left alone, and several generations later, the horses became wild and wary of humans.  The animals have never seen bridle, saddle, or whip and the laws of the wild prevail – stallions fight to the death to keep their mares.  The horses are hearty and never leave the island, even when frozen ice forms a bridge to the mainland.  The wild horses have taken on the role of saiga antelope (Saiga tatarica) and tarpan – the ancestral wild horse, large herbivores that historically maintained steppe habitats.  Saiga numbers diminished rapidly in the last part of the 20th century, while the tarpan is now extinct in the wild.  The zapovednik provides fresh water for the horses on the island during dry spells, since the water from the reservoir has become too saline to drink.

Rostovsky Zapovednik is situated along one of the three major migratory routes for birds in Russia.  The inaccessible islands of the reserve provide perfect nesting and stopover grounds for ducks and other waterfowl.  Small shoals of sand in the shallow reservoir harbor hundreds of nests – the birds literally raise their young right on top of one another.  Rare Eurasian spoonbills (Platalea leucorodia) nest along side herring gulls (Larus argentatus), which prey on their helpless chicks if the parents stray from the nest.  Other common nesting waterfowl include greylag goose (Anser anser), bean goose (A. fabalis), red-breasted goose (Branta ruficollis), mallard (Anas platyrhynchos), gadwall (A. strepera), great egret (Egretta alba), and little egret (E. garzetta).  The ruddy shelduck (Tadorna ferruginea) nests in a deep earthen burrow – often abandoned fox den.  Rare Eastern white pelicans (Pelecanus crispus) – listed in the Russian Red Book, and Dalmatian pelicans (P. onocrotalus) nest in colonies in the reserve.  Common cranes (Grus grus) and endangered Demoiselle cranes (Anthropoides virgo) gather here in the fall in large numbers to fly south for the winter.   In all, 200 species of birds have been noted in the reserve, half of which nest here.

There are two species of amphibians (Bufo viridis, Rana ridibunda) and eight reptiles in the nature reserve.  Reptiles include the European pond turtle (Emys orbicularis), sand lizard (Lacerta agilis), grass and tesselated water snakes (Natrix matrix, N. tesselata), and Orsini’s viper (Vipera ursini). 

The composition of fish species has changed in the Manych-Gudilo Reservoir since the middle of the 20th century.  Common fish species used to include Heckel’s roach (Rutilus rutilus heckeli), carp (Cyprinus carpio), and sander (Lucioperca lucioperca). Gradual salination of the reservoir from the 1950s to the 1970s, a result of a high rate of evaporation from the shallow waters and poor water management, has led to disappearance of those species.  Today, most of the fish in the reservoir are pipefish (Syngnathus nigrolineatus), three-spined stickleback (Gasterosteus aculeatus), or lesser stickleback (Pungitius platygaster). 



In mid-spring, tulips (Tulipa shrenkii, T. biebersteiniana) bloom red across the low green hills of the Manych Valley.  In fact, the tulips that are grown in Holland today and popular around the world originated from the Manych Valley.  The first flowers first traveled to Turkey in the 17th century, where they earned the name of the Turkish tulip, then went on to conquer Europe and the world.  Yet, the Shrenk’s tulip is highly endangered in its place of origin.

Tulips flower on a green backdrop of fescue (Festuca valesiaca) and feathergrass (Stipa lessingiana, S. capillata, S. ucrainica, S. pulcherima) steppe communities, which make up the majority of the plant cover in the zapovednik.  Islands are covered with tall grasses and flowers with purple, pink, yellow, white, and red blossoms. Hair-like feathergrass (Agropyron pectinatum), sea lavender (Limonium sareptanum), and sagebrush (Artemisia austriaca) are common in valley steppe habitats, while low shrubs (Kochia prostrata, Artemesia lerchiana, A. pauciflora, A. santonica) are found in drier areas.  Austrian flax (Linum austriacum) is common in areas.  Patches of desert are found in places that were subject to overgrazing or other human impacts.

Two species of feathergrass (Stipa zalesskii, S. ucrainica), Shrenk’s tulip, and meadow saffron (Colchicum laetum) are some of the endangered plants in the reserve listed in the Russian Red Book.  In all, there are 384 species of vascular plants in the zapovednik, representing 54 families. 

Geographical Features

Rostovsky Zapovednik is made up of four separate territories running west to east in the Orlovsky and Remontny districts of Rostov Province in southwestern Russia.  The sections of the reserve (Ostrovnoy, Starikovsky, Krasny Partizansky, and Tsagan-khag), separated by 5-25 kilometers, are islands in the Manych-Gudilo Reservoir or adjacent lands.  The reservoir was created in 1953 with the damming of the Manych River, which once connected the Azov and Caspian seas.  The Manych River belongs to the Don River Basin.  Many islands in the Manych River were never plowed, thus represent virgin steppe habitats.

Winters in Rostovsky Zapovednik are cold with relatively small amounts of snow and summers are hot and dry.  The average temperature in January is – 5.5oC, while the average temperature in July is + 24oC.  An average of 300-400 mm of precipitation falls during the year. 

Conservation Status

Rostovsky Zapovednik is the only strict nature reserve in Rostov Province, created to conserve natural biodiversity of the steppe zone and to understand ecosystem processes in the altered landscape of the Manych-Gudilo Reservoir.  Scientists had advocated the creation of a zapovednik in the steppe zone within the Don River Basin since 1911.  Specialists from Rostov State University, Moscow State University, the Russian Academy of Sciences, and other groups carried out research to justify creating the reserve.  Yet until the 1990s, administrative support for these initiatives was lacking.

Today, scientists from Rostov State University still play an active role in studying biodiversity in the zapovednik.  Students and professors visit the reserve several times a year to carry out research projects.  One project that a group from the university is working on is to create a second zapovednik in the region, called Priazovsky, near the Azov Sea coast.  Plans for this zapovednik have been approved by the provincial government and are now waiting for federal endorsement.

Rostovsky Zapovednik is a young zapovednik, therefore most of the threats to the reserve come from impacts of past trends.  Sheep grazing, which used to be prevalent on lands that are now protected, impacted plant species composition, pushing out aboriginal steppe vegetation and allowing the proliferation of weeds and invasive species.  Intensive grazing of livestock resulted in desertification in certain areas.

Perhaps the greatest threat to the zapovednik’s ecosystems comes from the increasing salinity of the Manych-Gudilo Reservoir.  Due to the large surface area and shallow depth, water evaporates leaving a highly saline concentration.  Poor water management and use of water for irrigation also contributed to the lake’s salination.  As a result, the wildlife in the reserve cannot drink from the lake – birds must fly to fresh water ponds to drink.   Fish composition in the reservoir has changed since its creation in 1953, and zooplankton has been affected as well. 


Minoransky, V.A., editor.  2002.  Works of Rostovsky State Zapovednik, First Edition.  Rostov-na-Donu.

Gennady Kurbatov is a cameraman and publishing designer in Bryansk, Russia.

Text prepared by Laura Williams.



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