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Established: 1997

Size: 18,480 ha (185 km2)

Buffer Zone: None

Contact information:
Glagolev, Stanislav Borisovich, Director. Russia 416501 Astrakhanskaya Oblast, Akhtubinsk, Microraion Melioratorov, 19, #1.

Tel: (7-851-41) 3-14-94


© 2002 Igor Shpilenok

East of the Volga River, where the broad, dry steppes of Kazakhstan spill into Russia, two landmarks break the endless plains. Lake Baskunchak, the largest saline lake in all of Russia, sits under the shadow of Mount Bolshoye Bogdo, a hill that rises nearly 200 meters above the surrounding grassland. Noted long ago for a multitude of caves and rock formations, the area is also important habitat for migratory birds and other animals. Each year thousands of saiga antelope travel through the region from their wintering grounds in Kazakhstan. Conservationists spent nearly 80 years working to form a protected area in this part of the Astrakhan region, but only in 1997 did the region become a strict nature reserve, Bogdinsko-Baskunchaksky Zapovednik.


Bogdinsko-Baskunchaksky Zapovednik Images
Bogdinsko-Baskunchaksky Zapovednik Facts

Images of Bogdinsko-Baskunchaksky Zapovednik
Click on each photo to see a large version.

© 2002 Igor Shpilenok

Saiga antelopes periodically migrate through the zapovednik.

© 2002 Igor Shpilenok

Lake Baskunchak is the largest saline lake in all of Russia.

© 2002
Igor Shpilenok

The steppe stretches in all directions from
Mount Bolshoye Bogdo.

© 2002
Igor Shpilenok

Mount Bolshoye Bogdo is the only place in Russia
where ground geckos are found.

© 2002
Igor Shpilenok

A northern eagle owl chick has strayed from its nest on Mount Bolshoye Bogdo.


© 2002
Igor Shpilenok

Feathergrass sways in the wind on the dry steppe at sunset.

© 2002
Igor Shpilenok

Rare demoiselle cranes nest here in significant

© 2002
Igor Shpilenok

The slopes of Mount Bolshoye Bodgo are furrowed with gulleys.

Bogdinsko-Baskunchaksky Zapovednik Facts:
AnimalsVegetationGeographical FeaturesConservation StatusReferences


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 reserve’s 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 polecat’s 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 the zapovednik.

Numerous caves in the reserve provide ample habitats for nine species of bats (Myotis spp., Nyctalus spp., Vespertilio spp.).

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 reserve’s 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 canus).

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 spp.).

Much of the zapovednik’s 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 plants.

Ten rare or endangered plants grow in the reserve. The common tulip and Bieberstein’s 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.

Geographical Features

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 region’s 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 Astrakhanskaya Oblast.

Conservation Status

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 — in 1985.

The inclusion of Astrakhansky Zapovednik into UNESCO’s 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 region’s 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 Oblast’, 1998.

Zapovedniks and National Parks of Russia. Moscow: EcoCenter "Zapovedniks," 2001.

Additional information provided by zapovednik staff.

Text written by Lisa Woodson.


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