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Established: 1990
121,901 ha (1,219 km2) on two territories
Buffer zone: 90,000 ha (900 km2)

Contact information:
Bodmayev, Victor Sangadjievich, Director

Russia 359240, Kalmykia Republic, Chernozemelsky raion, Komsomolsky

Tel: (7-847-43) 9-12-54

Sikhote-Alinsky ZapovednikA cloud of dust extends like a train across the parched steppe - or plain. Ahead of the cloud, a herd of several thousand saiga antelope races away from a pack of lanky wolves at speeds of nearly 80 km per hour. Hunted by people and wolves, saiga now take refuge in the Cherny Zemly Zapovednik in the Kalmykia Republic in southwestern Russia. The nature reserve conserves valuable saiga breeding and calving grounds - flat, semi-desert plains extending to the horizon in every direction with neither tree or bush to interrupt the endless vista. Once the bottom of the Caspian Sea, now water is scarce on the barren plain, and every creature's survival is linked to finding a drop here or a puddle there. The remains of any unlucky animals are quickly picked away by hungry vultures, eagles, and buzzards. A smaller section of the zapovednik in northwestern Kalmykia differs dramatically from the desert-like plain further south. Here, colonies of egrets, cormorants, and rare pelicans are protected on the shore and islands of the shallow Manych-Gudilo Reservoir, a saline body of water flowing into the Don River.

Photo © 2000 Igor Shpilenok

Zapovednik Images
Zapovednik Facts

Cherny Zemli in Russian Conservation News journal:

Russian Conservation NewsIn search of the saiga antelope, RCN #24, page 7, 2000



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

© 2000 Igor Shpilenok

Saiga antelopes have arched noses for filtering out dust.

© 2000 Igor Shpilenok

A rare demoiselle crane tends to her nest on a patch of bare earth.

© 2000 Igor Shpilenok

White tufts of feather-grass sway in the wind.

© 2000 Igor Shpilenok

Rare Eurasian spoonbills nest on the Manych-Gudilo Lake.

© 2000 Igor Shpilenok

Dirt roads are patrolled by rangers to catch saiga poachers.

© 2000 Igor Shpilenok

Herring gulls nest in noisy colonies on Manych-Gudilo.

© 2000 Igor Shpilenok

Seeds of the oriental eremopyrum are the ground squirrel's favorite food.

© 2000 Igor Shpilenok

Sociable pygmy ground squirrels burrow in dens in the steppe.


Facts: Cherny Zemly Bioshpere Zapovednik

Cherny Zemly Zapovednik was created primarily to conserve important breeding and calving grounds of the unique saiga antelope (Saiga tatarica). This small antelope with a rather squarish body on thin legs can run over the plain at speeds of up to 80 km per hour. The antelope has a funny looking hump on its long, soft nose which filters out dust as it runs across the dry steppe. The antelope has large black eyes that protrude slightly from its head. The males have short spiky horns, yellowish in color, with black rings near the base. Hunted for its meat and horns, used in stomach remedies in oriental medicine, saiga populations have decreased dramatically in the last part of the 20th century. Saiga numbers fell from 220,000 in 1996 in Kalmykia to fewer than 55,000 according to a 1999 census. Worldwide, there are about 700,000 saiga antelopes, the majority of which are in Kazakhstan. Some experts say that the main reason for the saiga's decline is the inordinate number of wolves (Canis lupus) in the region, which prey on young and sick animals. Habitat loss due to cultivation of steppe lands has also taken its toll. As a result, the saiga is now listed in CITES Appendix II, and hunting in Kalmykia has been halted.

European hare (Lepus europaeus) and eared hedgehog (Erinaceus auritus) are smaller mammals found in the protected steppe of Cherny Zemly Nature Reserve. The lanky corsac fox (Vulpes corsac) trots across the level plain in search of rodents, sometimes catching long-legged jerboas. Three species of jerboas are found in Cherny Zemly Zapovednik: great, small five-toed, and Northern three-toed jerboa (Allactaga major, A. Elater, Dipus sagitta).

The range of the endangered marbled polecat (Vormela peregusna) has been shrinking over the past 200 years due to grazing and cultivation of prairies. The Caspian Sea and Caucasus region, where Cherny Zemly Zapovednik is located, is one of only two areas where the marbled polecat is still found in Russia; the other region is in the Altai foothills in Western Siberia. The rather large polecat, with a long bushy tail and light-colored mask on its face, has an effective way of defending itself from foxes and wolves. The polecat stands up on its hind legs, throws its furry tail up in the air, displays its viscous set of fangs, and growls like a dog. This display and the foul odor emanating from the polecat's glands are often enough to deter would be predators.

A filling meal for the marbled polecat consists of hamsters (Cricetulus spp.), voles (Micr otus spp.), or pygmy ground squirrels - also called sousliks (Spermophilus pygmaeus). The sandy-colored ground squirrels dig elaborate dens in the steppe, where colonies of several families live together. Ground squirrels feed on seeds and grasses while keeping watch for predators. When danger is sensed, a ground squirrel stands up on its hind legs and gives out a long whistle, sending all the others underground within seconds.

Ground squirrels are also the favored prey of many birds of prey in the Kalmykian steppe. Twelve species of raptors have been sited in the reserve, including rare steppe eagles (Aquila nipalensis) and imperial eagles (A. heliaca). Long-legged buzzards (Buteo rufinus) build their nests on mounds of earth left from old settlements and burial grounds, often bringing pieces of saiga fur into the nest for bedding. White-tailed sea-eagles (Haliaëetus albicilla) soar above the steppe, hundreds of miles from the sea. Four kinds of harriers (Circus spp.) frequent the zapovednik, flying low over the plain in search of prey. Egyptian vultures (Neophron percnopterus), cinereous vulture (Aegypius monachus), and Eurasian griffon (Gyps fulvus) flock to saiga birthing grounds to feed on helpless saiga babies, minutes after they are born.

Endangered worldwide, the demoiselle crane (Anthropoides virgo) is oddly one of the most visible birds in the steppe. Smaller than the common crane, this rare bird is one of the most beautiful of the crane species. The bird's body is dove gray in color, with long black feathers on its chest, wings, and tail. Brilliant white wisps of feathers stream off the back of its slender black head like a pony tail. Beady red eyes are set slightly above the base of its bright yellow beak. The birds, which choose a mate for life, stay near their nest in spring, a bare indentation in the earth with two large, greenish eggs with reddish-brown spots.

The other section of the Cherny Zemly Zapovednik, along the edge of the saline Manych-Gudilo Reservoir in northeastern Kalmykia, is a haven for nesting shorebirds. The rare Eurasian spoonbill (Platalea leucorodia), with a rounded shovel-like tip at the end of its long, reddish bill, feeds on insects and mollusks in silty soils near the shore. Rare Eastern white pelicans (Pelecanus crispus), listed in the Russian Red Book, nest in colonies of up to 400 pairs. Dalmatian pelicans (P. Onocrotalus) are much less numerous; only five pairs nested in the reserve in 1997. Great cormorants (Phalacrocorax carbo) also nest in large colonies on islands of the Manych-Gudila Reservoir. Great and little egrets (Egretta alba, E. garzetta) build their nests up with dead reeds on islands, flying to bodies of freshwater to feed on small fish, frogs, and insects. Herring gulls (Larus argentatus) make their nests along side the egrets, often preying on their helpless chicks. Whooper swan (Cygnus cygnus), mute swan (Cygnus olor), ruddy shelduck (Tadorna ferruginea), and others are among the 202 species of birds found in Cherny Zemly Zapovednik.

Amphibians and reptiles in the reserve include the toad-headed and spotted toad agama (Phrynocephalus mystaceus, P. Guttatus), rapid fringed-toed lizard and steppe runner (Ememias velox, E. arguta), sand boa (Eryx jaculus), Montpellier snake (Malpolon monphlessianus), and Renard's viper (Vipera ursini).


The endlessly flat and unbroken plain - or steppe - stretches to the horizon in every direction. Not a single tree breaks up the wide open space. In spring, the brownish steppe transforms into a carpet of greenish-grey grasses. The red, white, and yellow flowers of rare tulips (Tulipa biebersteiniana, T. biflora, T. schrenkii) bring a sprinkling of color to the unvaried plain. White tufts of feathergrass (Stipa capillata, S. lessingiana, S. zalesskii) sway in the summer breeze. Bulbous bluegrass (Poa bulbosa) grows beneath the dangling pennants of downy chess (Bromus tectorum) and rare Japanese brome (Bromus japonicus). The sweet smell of wormwood (Artemisia tschernieviana, A. austriaca, A. pauciflora, A. salina, A. lerchiana) wafts over the open plain in spring and summer. Ground squirrels eagerly tear open the green tops of oriental eremopyrum (Eremopyrum orientale) to get at the tender seeds inside. These species, along with sword-flag (Iris pumila), mullein (Verbascum austriacum), and groundsel (Senecio noemus) are some of the 179 types of plants found in the reserve.

Before the nature reserve was created, dry steppe lands here were under constant grazing pressure from sheep, cows, and horses. Some four million sheep once grazed on the open plain. As a result of overgrazing, many lands were stripped bare of vegetation and began to turn into deserts. Blowing sand piled up in long mounds, which moved over time. Although protection and re-cultivation of the steppe has allowed vegetation to regenerate gradually on some lands, still 25,000 ha, or nearly one-third of this section of the reserve, is covered with bare soils and sand dunes.

Geographical Features

Cherny Zemly Zapovednik is located on two separate territories in the Republic of Kalmykia. The larger portion of the reserve (91,000 ha), in the Komsomolskoye and Yashkule administrative regions, protects semi-desert plains of the near-Caspian lowlands. A buffer zone of 56,000 ha surrounds this portion of the reserve. The elevation here is 24 meters below sea level, since the region was once the bottom of the Caspian Sea. Cherny Zemly, meaning "black lands" in Russian, gets its name due to the fact that, in wintertime, strong winds blow away most of the snow cover, and the lands look black and barren. While winters are cold and harsh, with temperatures dropping as low as -30oC, snow is moderate to scarce. Summers, on the other hand, are hot and dry. Temperatures soar above 40oC all summer long, and hot winds pick up over the endless plain. Rain is scarce and even the rangers have to truck their drinking water in to the reserve.

The second, smaller section (30,900 ha) of the Cherny Zemly Zapovednik is located in the very northwest corner of the Kalmykian Republic on the Manych-Gudilo Lake, also known in this part as Proletarskoye Reservoir. Water from the reservoir flows into the Don River, which then dumps into the Azov Sea. The lake is long and narrow, covering an area of 344 km2, with an average depth of only half a meter. The southeastern shore of the Manych-Gudilo Reservoir is protected in Cherny Zemly Zapovednik. The protected area has a buffer zone of 34,000 ha. This section is markedly different from the dry plain in the protected territory in the center of Kalmykia. Water is everywhere, but the lake is so saline from runoff and the lack of freshwater inlets, that hardly any fish can live here. The numerous small islands near the shore are safe places for bird colonies, although the birds must fly to bodies of freshwater to feed. Rolling hills line the lake shore, dropping off gradually to the into the shallow and silty waters of the reservoir.

Conservation Status

Conservation of important habitat for the saiga antelope is perhaps the most important function of the Cherny Zemly Zapovednik. However, saiga herds roam over a large area, and can cover several hundred kilometers per day. Once out of the reserve, poachers pursue the saiga herds on motorcycles and by car, sometimes shooting dozens of animals in one night. A republic level agency - the Department for Conservation, Monitoring, and Management of Game Resources of the Republic of Kalmykia - is responsible for protecting the species outside of the reserve, but these rangers cannot always be in the right place at the right time. In 1999, the agency caught and fined 350 poachers in Kalmykia. Actual poaching levels are probably significantly higher. In the winter of 1998-1999, for example, an enormous herd of nearly 100,000 saiga migrated several hundred kilometers south to Dagestan. A few weeks later, only small groups of saiga returned north to Kalmykia. Eyewitnesses on the Dagestan side reported that the snow was red from the massive saiga massacre. The Dagestan government refused to provide any additional information to Kalmykian authorities.

During breeding and calving seasons, the saiga generally return to the zapovednik, where they are granted protection from poachers. However, wolves are also protected in the zapovednik; these numerous predators inflict considerable harm on saiga populations, especially by preying on the young right after they are born. Scientists estimate that wolf kills account for nearly 35,000 saiga deaths per year, or more than half the current population. Some experts think that wolf populations should be controlled in order to save the saiga antelope. Others say that poaching must be reined in, and still others declare that more saiga habitat needs to be placed under protection. Probably some combination of these three measures is necessary to ensure that the saiga antelope will thrive in Kalmykia.


Zabelina, N.M., L.S. Isaeva-Petrova, and L.V. Kuleshova. Zapovedniks and National Parks of Russia. Logata publishing agency. Moscow, 1988.

Text written by Laura Williams based on personal interviews with staff of Cherny Zemly Zapovednik and the head of the Department for Conservation, Monitoring, and Management of Game Resources of the Republic of Kalmykia.

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