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Established: 1919

Area: 66,800 hectares (668 km2) on three territories

Buffer zone: 31,000 hectares (310 km2)

Contact information:
Nina Aleksandrovna Litvinova, Director

Russia 414021, Astrakhan, Naberezhnaya Tsarev 119

Tel: (7-8512) 30-17-64



Sikhote-Alinsky ZapovednikAfter twisting its way through northern Russia gaining volume, the Volga River splits into a fan of more than 250 channels that flow through the arid steppes of southern Russia before spilling into the Caspian Sea. The Volga delta is one of the largest in the world, an intricate maze of streams and rivers that provide spawning grounds for many species of fish. Narrow stands of willows arch over the calm waters while wild boars, foxes, and rodents roam through islands of tall reeds. These ecosystems are preserved in Astrakhansky Zapovednik, one of Russia’s oldest nature reserves. Founded in 1919 to protect the rapidly disappearing delta ecosystems, the zapovednik is now famous as a kingdom of birds, where trees and skies are ever filled with the noisy songs of eagles, swans, ducks, geese, cranes, and pelicans.

Photo A. Gorbunov

Zapovednik Images
Zapovednik Facts
Articles featuring this nature reserve in Russian Conservation News journal

Articles featuring this nature reserve in Russian Conservation News journal:


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

© 2002 Igor Shpilenok

Great cormorants build colonies in willow trees along riverbanks.

© 2002 Igor Shpilenok

Little egrets share nesting colonies with other birds.

© 2002 Igor Shpilenok

Kingfishers catch tiny fish by diving into the water.

© 2002 Igor Shpilenok

Two species of grass snakes are found in the Volga delta.

© 2000 D. Blumenberg

Egrets gather in great numbers in the reserve.

© 2002 Igor Shpilenok

In April, frogs congregate on warm banks in the delta.

© 2000 Alexander Gorbunov

The endangered sacred lotus is now widespread throughout the delta.

© 2002 Igor Shpilenok

Grassy banks are flooded with the Volga's rising waters in spring.



Facts: Astrakhan Zapovednik

With more than 250 avian species recorded in the reserve, Astrakhansky Zapovednik has earned its reputation as a sanctuary for birds. Year-round the skies and shoreline forests are filled with white-tailed sea-?eagles (Haliaeetus albicilla), one of 27 endangered species of birds found in the zapovednik. Other endangered birds of prey include osprey (Pandion haliaetus) and Saker falcon (Falco cherrug). Mute swans (Cygnus olor), once nearly extinct in the region, have made a remarkable comeback in the 20th century, such that now thousands nest in the Volga delta, and hundreds in the zapovednik. Dalmatian pelicans (Pelicanus crispus), recognizable by the curl-like tufts of feathers on their heads, can regularly be seen skimming the surface of the water.

The Volga delta offers one of the world’s most important nesting grounds for water birds. Great cormorants (Phalacrocorah carbo) build large, noisy colonies in willow trees along the riverbanks. Colonies of gulls (Chlidonias hybrida, C. niger, C. hirundo) attract carnivorous fish such as Wels catfish (Silurus glanis), which swim to the banks in hopes of making a meal of baby birds that have fallen from their nests. Sharing of nesting sites, an unusual phenomenon in nature, is characteristic in the zapovednik, where great white herons and little egrets (Egretta alba, E. garzetta), glossy ibises (Plegadis falcinellus), black-crowned night herons (Nycticorax nycticorax), Eurasian spoonbills (Platalea leucorodia), and pond herons (Ardeola ralloides) frequently build nests in the same colonies.

Summer is a particularly colorful season in the zapovednik, where more than 25,000 ducks spend their molting period. Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) are the first to arrive in June, followed by northern pintails (A. acuta), green-winged teals (A. crecca), garganeys (A. querquedula), and gadwalls (A. strepera). Northern shovelers (A. clypeata) and wigeons (A. penelope) complete this annual gathering of ducks, which nest deep in the wildest regions of the reserve before heading to the outer reaches of the delta near the close of August.

Away from the water, forest birds are dominant. Great titmice (Parus parus), wood pigeons (Columba palumbus), golden orioles (Oriolus oriolus), and tree sparrows (Passer montanus) nest in willows. Reed buntings (Emberiza schoeniclus), Savi’s warbler (Locustella luscinioides), and bearded tits (Panurus biarmicus) prefer to build their nests in the thick reeds. Meanwhile cuckoos (Cuculus canorus) are spread throughout the reserve, laying their eggs in unguarded nests of warblers (Acrocephalus spp.) and then abandoning them.

On the islands, mammals range from wild boars (Sus scrofa), the reserve’s largest wild animal, to the tiny harvest mouse (Micromys minutus), which builds its nest in upon the stems of tall plants. Foxes (Vulpes vulpes), raccoon dogs (Nycterutes procyonoides), weasels (Mustela nivalis), and mink (M. vison) are the major predators in the reserve. In the 1940s and 1950s, beavers (Castor fiber) and muskrats (Ondatra zibethica) were released into the zapovednik, and subsequently became constant residents of the reserve.

Beginning in April, large groups of frogs (Rana ridibunda) congregate on warm banks in the delta, filling the air with their characteristic croaking. Their song comes to a climax in May, when floodwaters cover these banks and female frogs release their eggs into the water. Green toads (Bufo viridis) and spadefoot toads (Pelobates fuscus) are rarer in the zapovednik. European pond turtles (Emys orbicularis) wake from their winter hibernation at the end of March or beginning of April, going through two cycles of reproduction during the summer. The reserve also offers home to Dione ratsnakes (Elaphe dione), two species of grass snakes (Natrix tessellata, N. natrix), and sand lizards (Lacerta agilis).

In total, scientists have found 61 different fish in Astrakhansky Zapovednik, including both typical river and lake species. Fish in the carp family are the most numerous, filling the waters with European pike-perch (Stizostedion lucioperca), rudd (Scardinius erythrophthalmus), bleak (Alburnus alburnus), and tench (Tinca tinca). In late spring, common carp (Cyprinus carpio) spawn in groups of 10-15 fish, pulling their bodies a third of the way out of the water to release their eggs onto the ground or shallow waters. These eggs hatch in June, and by July the young fish swim into the major canals of the delta, where many become food for larger carnivorous fish, such as the colorful European perch (Perca fluviatilis) and Northern pike (Esox lucius).

Toward the beginning of November eastern bream (Abramis brama orientalis), crucian carp (Carassius carassius), and goldfish (C. auratus gibelia) gather in schools of hundreds and even thousands of fish. From there some travel up into the channels of the delta to hibernate, but most spend the winter close to the edge of the sea.

As with migrating birds, the zapovednik plays an important role in the lives of migrating fish. The endangered herring Alosa kessleri volgensis passes through the zapovednik during flood season on the course of its annual migration between the Caspian Sea and its spawning grounds in the upper Volga. The comparatively narrow waters of the zapovednik are too shallow for the Caspian’s most prized fish, sturgeon, which travel up to spawning grounds along the Volga River through the delta’s largest branch. Nonetheless, Russian sturgeon (Acipenser guldenstadti), stellate sturgeon (Acipenser stellatus), and beluga or giant sturgeon (Huso huso) sometimes pass through the zapovednik by chance on their return trip as the river’s current carries them haphazardly to the sea.


Old willows (Salix alba, S. triandra) dominate the narrow stands of forest that grow along the banks of rivers and streams, which also incorporate European ash (Fraxinus excelsior), European white elm (Ulmus laevis), and false indigo (Amorpha fruticosa). As these old forests fall into decay, dewberry (Rubus caesius) and lesser pond sedge (Carex acutiformis) spring up in their place. Colonies of reeds (phragmites australis, Typha angustifolia, Phalaris arundinacea) and common club rush (Scirpus lacustris) line the shores.

By the 1960s, scientists had identified 44 species of water plants growing in the reserve. Pondweeds (Potamogeton berchtoldii, P. lucens, P. pectinatus, P. crispus, P. perfoliatus, P. nodosus), water milfoils (Myriophyllum spicatum, M. verticallatum), straight vallis (Vallisneria spiralis), and American waterweed (Elodea canadensis) are all common in the zapovednik. Yellow floating heart (Nymphoides peltata), yellow water lily (Nuphar lutea), and frogbit (Hydrocharis morsus) drifts on the surface of the water. The rootless coontail (Ceratophyllum demersum) is widespread throughout underwater regions of the reserve. Flowering rush (Butomus umbellatus) grows in many parts of the zapovednik, but raises its delicate pink blossoms on thin stems well above the water only in shallow regions. Branched bur-reed (Sparganium erectum) grows along the shoreline, producing prickly burrs that cling to the fur of passing animals to help scatter its seeds.

In August, as temperatures peak and the calm waters of the delta turn translucent, the pink and white flowers of the sacred lotus (Nelumbo nucifera) and white water lily (Nymphaea alba) blossom upon a bed of lily pads. When the zapovednik was founded, a small patch of lotus grew in only the Damchiksky region of the zapovednik. Thanks to active cultivation of this endangered flower, it can now be found in all three regions of the zapovednik and in several other areas throughout the Volga delta. The water chestnut (Trapa natans), endangered in the Russian Federation, has also prospered in the protection the zapovednik offers.

Human influence is obvious in many regions of the zapovednik, where fires, mowing, grazing, and tree cutting have stripped away the natural plant cover. Among the first plants to grow up in these areas are tamarisk (Tamarix ramosissima), weeping alkali grass (Puccinella distans), Crypsis aculeata, sea club-rush (Boboschoenus maritimus), Pannonian Tripoli aster (Tripolium pannonicum), knotgrass (Polygonum arenarium), and Canada thistle (Cirsium arvense). Narrow-leaved meadow grass (Poa angustifolia), Clycyrrhiza glabra, and Limonium gmelinii grow on dry, steppe-meadow regions of the reserve that appeared when dams on the Volga River decreased the volume and duration of annual floods.

Geographical Features

Located at the southern edge of the Volga delta, where the river spills into the Caspian Sea, Astrakhansky Zapovednik lies at the apex of a dynamic water system. Roughly the size and shape of the state of California, the Caspian Sea is the world’s largest inland sea, and has a significant impact on the development of the delta. Together the sea and the silt-carrying flow of the Volga River have formed this delta and continue to change its relief, continuously creating new islands and canals. As the Volga River carries sediment downstream, it deposits it at the edge of sea, creating islands of alluvial deposits of sand, silt, and clay. Meanwhile, fluctuating water levels in the Caspian Sea have alternatively dried and flooded the southern reaches of the delta over the course of several decades.

Despite the proximity of the sea, the Volga delta is located in the midst of a semi-desert region. Warm winds rising from the Central Asian deserts provide for abundant sunshine and a frost-free period that lasts 200 days. Summer temperatures rise to 45 degrees Celsius, while heavy local rainstorms keep the air and soil moist. Even so, winters are cold and continental, stretching from December to March, and freezing even the lower reaches of the delta and the northern part of the Caspian Sea. In spring, floods rise to cover many of the islands of zapovednik, up to 90 percent of the reserve’s total area. At its average level, water covers about 70 percent of the reserve.

Conservation Status

The idea to form a nature reserve in the Volga delta arose at the beginning of the 20th century, when an expedition of scientists from the Zoology Museum of Moscow State University reported that the shortsighted use of natural resources had already caused a sharp decline in the number of birds in the region. Each spring more than half a million eggs were collected, and hunting went unchecked. In 1915, a special commission was formed to organize the formation of a reserve in the delta, but was delayed by the onset of revolution and civil war two years later. Even so, the scientists’ efforts paid off in 1919 when a local government representative won an audience with Vladimir Lenin and explained the need to protect at least portions of the delta. Lenin approved the plans, and three months later Astrakhansky Zapovednik became the first zapovednik formed under Soviet rule. At that time the zapovednik was about one-third its present size, but with time, and with increased funding, it grew to the 66,000 hectares it covers today.

In time, the reserve — and the delta as a whole — began to attract international attention. In 1976, the delta was named a site of the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, encompassing the entire territory of the zapovednik. In 1984, the zapovednik was awarded the status of a UNESCO biosphere reserve. Two years later, it opened an environmental monitoring station for conducting detailed studies of plant, animals, and climate.

Despite these advances, the state of the zapovednik’s natural ecosystems has declined significantly since the middle of the 20th century. Increased demands on natural resources throughout the Volga delta have diminished the abundance of birds and fish that once came through the reserve. Hydroelectric power plants built on the Volga River have altered water flow and fish migrations. Oil and gas exploration and increased interest in tourism in the delta have brought with them pollution that stretches into the zapovednik’s borders. Poaching and overfishing in the Caspian Sea have brought several species of sturgeon — valued particularly for their dark and flavorful caviar —near the brink of extinction. Even tourism has become an environmental threat, as an abundance of visitors disturb nesting birds and spawning fish. Alone the reserve is simply not large enough to protect all the species that live in the dynamic delta ecosystems.

Moreover, problems exist even within the reserve. Poaching and fire-setting are not uncommon due to conflicts between the zapovednik and local villages, which are characterized by high unemployment and poverty. Fires are particularly devastating, destroying nesting sites for numerous birds and old-growth reed colonies that serve as spawning ground for fishes. For this reason, in recent years the zapovednik administration has placed particular emphasis on environmental education in these villages, as well as in the entire Astrakhan Region. Further, in accordance with the current trend in Russian biosphere reserves to expand their activity and influence to regions outside the territory of the zapovednik, Astrakhansky Zapovednik is currently working to found three biosphere polygons in the Caspian Sea to demonstrate models of sustainable development. By working together with local fisheries and tourist agencies and offering sound data based on years of scientific research, the zapovednik staff hopes to provide a basis for rational use of the delta’s natural resources.


Astrakhansky Zapovednik. Rusakov, G. V. and A. G. Kohechny, eds. Moscow: Argopromizdat, 1991.

Zapovedniks of the USSR: Zapovedniks of the European Part of Russia II. Sokolova, V. V. and E. E. Syroechkovsky, eds. Moscow: Mysl, 1989.

Additional information provided by zapovednik staff.

Text by Lisa Woodson.

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