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Established: 1989
Area: 21,642.5 ha (216 km2)
Buffer zone: 10,000 ha (100 km2)

Contact information:
Pulyaev, Anatoly Ivanovich, Director

Russia 460023, Orenburg Ul. Magistralnaya 9

Tel/Fax: (7-3532) 56-76-79

"A calm, clean wind, and such a wind! How wild and fresh the air is! How alive everything is: the steppe blushes, burning, and shining blue with flowers. Quails, bustards, gulls, grasshoppers, thousands of insects, all of them whistling, buzzing, crackling, shrieking, and suddenly forming a harmonious choir. And none of it stops even for a moment." With these words the famed writer Nikolai Gogol described the steppes as they appeared at the end of the 19th century. Today the Orenburgsky Zapovednik, comprised of four regions spread along the border between Kazakhstan and Russia's Orenburg Region, is the only nature reserve that protects Russia's last remaining wild steppe ecosystems. These expansive grasslands burst into bloom each spring, supporting a multitude of insects, birds, and mammals. The protected area also preserves sites of great historical and archaeological significance: as early as the seventh century B.C., nomadic Sarmat tribes inhabited these steppes, leaving stone monuments in the sea of grasses.

Photo © 2001 Hendrik Zeitler

Zapovednik Images
Zapovednik Facts

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

© 2001 Hendrik Zeitler

Several species of hedysarum grow in the zapovednik, spattering the hillsides in pale yellows, pinks, and magentas.

© 2001 Hendrik Zeitler

Small tracts of forest augment the expansive grasslands of the Burtinskaya Steppe.

© 2001 Hendrik Zeitler

The whinchat (Saxicola rubetra) builds its nest with grasses and bushes that grow in the zapovednik.

© 2001 Hendrik Zeitler

Sunrise illuminates the rippled foothills of the Ural Mountains.

© 2001 Hendrik Zeitler

The blue-headed wagtail (Motacilla flava) is common throughout the reserve.

© 2001 Hendrik Zeitler

Although steppe plants well adapted to the dry climate are more common in the reserve, lush foliage grows along the banks of streams and ponds.

© 2001 Hendrik Zeitler

The frail white flowers of anemone (Anemone sylvestris) grow in patches in moist regions of the zapovednik.

© 2001 Hendrik Zeitler

The steppe marmot, or bobak (Marmota bobak) is a highly social animal that lives in colonies.


Facts: Orenburgsky Zapovednik

Because of its location on the border of several geographical zones, the reserve is home not only to traditional steppe species, but also to those that live in broadleaf forests and semi-desert ecosystems. A total of 48 species of mammals, 193 birds, 7 reptiles, 5 amphibians, 6 fish, and around 1,000 insects may be found in the zapovednik.

Rodents are plentiful in the reserve. The European hare (Lepus europaeus) bounds across grassy hillsides. Two species of ground squirrels (Citellus pygmaeus, C. major) take advantage of the expansive plains to build burrows and search for food. Numerous small mounds of earth scattered along the hilly grasslands signify burrows of the steppe marmot, or bobak (Marmota bobak), an animal often seen socializing with other family members in the sun. Once listed as an endangered species in the Soviet Union's Red Data Book, the steppe marmot was gradually declining toward extinction as a result of intensive hunting and habitat loss. Thanks to the protection offered by the zapovednik, however, its numbers have more than quadrupled over the past decade.

Roe deer (Capreolus capreolus), and wild boar (Sus scrofa) take shelter in the small tracts of forests that dot the grassland. Moose (Alces alces) also forage in these forests. Beavers (Castor fiber) build dams along rivers, and muskrats (Ondatra zibethica) bathe in the reserve's lakes. Badgers (Meles meles) make dens in small rocky caves in the mountains. Weasels (Mustela nivalis), American mink (Mustela vison), and ermine (Mustela erminea) prey on the large variety of rodents in the reserve. The locally endangered steppe pika (Ochatona pusilla), an endemic of the Paleoarctic, darts between rocks and shrubs along the hills in search of plants to store as food for the long winter.

Larger predators, such as lynx (Felis lynx), wolves (Canis lupes), and red foxes (Vulpes vulpes) all occasionally wander into the reserve, but the zapovednik is not large enough to sustain significant populations of these animals. Saiga (Saiga tatarica), a vanishing antelope once common in the steppes, used to migrate through the reserve annually, but no saiga have been seen in the Orenburg region since 1994.

The Orenburgsky Zapovednik plays a significant role in providing sanctuary for birds as they migrate between Europe, Central Asia, and Siberia. Nearly 200 species of birds have been sighted in the zapovednik, more than 100 of which nest in the reserve. The great bustard (Otis tarda), once considered extinct in the region, now nests in the Talovskaya Steppe. The endangered little bustard (Tetrax tetrax) has become a common species in the reserve. Populations of vulnerable species like the upland buzzard (Buteo hemilasius), and imperial eagle (Aquila heliaca Savigny) are increasing. The lovely demoiselle crane (Anthropoides virgo) finds refuge in the zapovednik during its annual migration. The mute swan (Cygnus olor) and several ducks (Anas spp.) swim in the reserve's multiple streams and ponds. The mighty steppe eagle (Aquila nipalensis), soars high above the ground in search of food and dives hundreds of feet to catch small rodents. Meanwhile, the distinctive whistle of the common quail (Coturnix coturnix) is frequently heard as evening falls over the steppes: "Time for bed! Time for bed!"

Because of the Orenburgsky Zapovednik's location along a prime migration route between Northern Russia and Europe and Central Asia, a number of non-steppe species fly through the reserve. Several species of geese (Rufibrenta ruficollis, Anser albifrons, A. fabalis, A. erythropus) pass through the zapovednik each spring on their way to nesting sites in the Russian Arctic. The endangered pied avocet (Recurvirostra avosetta) and golden plover (Pluvialis apricaria) also stop to rest in the reserve on their way north.

Despite the harsh climate of the zapovednik, 20 species of birds winter in the reserve, including European sparrow-hawk (Accipiter nisus), black grouse (Lyrurus tetrix), gray partridge (Perdix perdix), lesser spotted woodpecker (Dendrocopos minor), great titmouse (Paridae major) and long-tailed tit (Aegithalos caudatus), Euroasian nuthatch (Sitta europaea), and yellow bunting (Emberiza citrinella).

Although not common in the reserve, Renard's viper (Vipera ursini) can be found sunning itself in the warm grasses. Two species of lizard, (Lacerta agilis, L. vivipara) can frequently be seen darting through the grass. Freshwater turtles (Emys orbicularis) wander along streams in the reserve. Several species of frogs and toads also live in the zapovednik.


As the steppe begins to bloom each spring, the yellow-gray grassland bursts into color as wave after wave of varied wildflowers blossom, painting hillsides and plains in vivid hues. Because the territory of the zapovednik has held official state protection for just over a decade - a short period of time in the course of steppe development - the reserve's vegetation is only beginning a return toward its natural state. With each year, the diversity of and distribution of plants grows. At the current time, over 800 vascular plant species have been found growing within the zapovednik, including 21 species listed in the Red Data Books of the Russian Federation and Orenburg Region.

Just after the snow melts early in the spring, purple pasqueflower (Pulsatilla patens) sprouts, dotting the hillsides and plains with clumps of bright azure blossoms. Soon after, four species of tulip (Tupila schrenkii,T. biebersteiniana, T. biflora, T. patens), coat the fields in a rich spattering of reds, yellows, magentas, purples, and blues. Mugwort (Artemesia vulgaris) then springs into bloom with yellow and purple flowers. By the end of April to beginning of May, the hillsides turn yellow with the flowering of the Siberian pea-tree (Caragana arborescens), followed a few weeks later by the light pink blossoms of Russian almond (Amygdalus nana) and frutescent cherry (Cerasus fruticosa). As these blossoms fade, irises (Iris humilis) lay a cloak of indigo and purple on the high plateaus. Gladiolus (Gladiolus imbricatus) and military orchid (Orchis militaris) add spots of bright magentas, reds, and purples to the green background. Depending on temperature and the amount of precipitation, these colorful blossoms can last well into July, but eventually wither in the summer heat, leaving a sea of yellow-green grasses as far as the eye can see.

Meanwhile, the shadier, damper regions near forests and streams undergo transformations of their own throughout the spring and summer. Clumps of maroon-colored fritillaria (Fritillaria ruthenica, F. meleagroides) ripple in the cool spring wind. Common reeds (Phragmites australis) grow up along streams, providing shelter for many species of birds, along with wood club-rush (Scirpus sylvaticus), bur-reeds, (Sparganium sp.) and arrowheads (Sagittaria natans, S. Sagittifolia). Small fields of anemone (Anemone sylvestris) sprout with delicate white flowers, and small, pale-blue forget-me-nots (Myosotis suaveolens) grow throughout the moist regions of the reserve.

A variety of rare and endangered species that are endemic to the Urals grow widely in the zapovednik. Endemic species of pinks (Dianthus uralensis), milk-vetches (Astragalus helmii, A. karelinianus), hedysarum (Hedysarum biebersteinii), and oxytropis (Oxytropis spicata) grow on the foothills of the Ural mountains. Other milk-vetches (Astragalus sulcatus) and viper's-grasses (Scorzonera pratorum) are endemic to the dry steppes and saline soils of the semi-desert of southern Siberia and northern Kazakhstan.

Although no large forests cover the zapovednik, a number of small forest tracts dot the landscape. Comprised primarily of birches (Beluta pendula), aspens (Populus tremula) and alders (Alnus glutinosa), these forests support a variety of smaller trees, shrubs and bushes. Bird cherry (Padus avium), Guelder rose (Viburnum opulus), and black currants (Ribes nigrum) provide food for a number of birds. Marsh fern (Thelypteris palustris), brooklime (Veronica beccabunga), saw-wart (Saussurea amara), and elecampane (Inula helenium) grow in the forest understory, particularly near streams.

Geographical Features

The four sections of the zapovednik cover a broad geographical area that stretches along the entire Orenburg Region, showing varied faces of steppe geography. These islands of steppe are remnants of once vast grasslands that extended from the deserts of present-day Kazakhstan to the foothills of the Ural Mountains. Located in a transition zone from the black earth region to the brown soil region, the zapovednik includes both mountains and flat semi-desert.

The westernmost sections of the zapovednik, called Talovskaya Steppe and Burtinskaya Steppe, are both generally flat with gently rolling hills. Nestled between the Ural River and the Republic of Kazakhstan is Aituarskaya Steppe, the most mountainous of the four regions. The variety of landscapes provide ample base for forest, steppe, and wetland ecosystems. More than 20 freshwater springs surface in the mountains of the Aituarskaya Steppe, ultimately flowing into the Ural River. The easternmost region of the zapovednik, the Aishchisaiskaya Steppe, is far dryer than the other three regions. Categorized as steppe-semi-desert, the Aishchisaiskaya steppe is characterized by flat plains dotted by low rock outcroppings. Even so, several small lakes up to 700 meters in diameter provide oases for water-loving species.

The region's climate is harsh, dry, and continental, bearing both fierce Siberian winds in the winter and the hot dry winds from the deserts of Central Asia in summer. Although the zapovednik receives little precipitation - from 250-390 cm per year - temperatures plunge to - 42oC and snow covers the ground from the end November to the beginning of April. In summer, temperatures rise to 42oC in July, and dust storms are common, especially in the eastern part of the region.

Conservation Status

The idea to create a nature reserve in the Orenburg Region appeared in the late 1800s, far before the founding of Russia's first zapovednik in 1916. Aware that the spread of agriculture, in particular cattle and livestock grazing, was destroying the last remnants of wild steppe, members of the Orenburg branch of the Russian Geographical Society became active supporters of creating a zapovednik in the Orenburg region.

The desire for economic growth in Russia's steppe region proved stronger than conservationists' warnings, however, and government officials continually delayed plans for founding the Orenburgsky Zapovednik until a new generation of conservationists began an active campaign in 1975 to create the zapovednik. Their efforts eventually proved successful, and in 1989 the four regions of the Orenburgsky Zapovednik were placed under official federal protection.

The zapovednik, however, was far from a model of pristine nature. Regional collective farms had pastured their herds on the territory of the zapovednik since the 1920s-1930s. Agricultural landscapes replaced the natural ecosystems of the steppes. Some regions of the reserve, such as the mountainous Aituarkaya Steppe, were comparatively untouched by human activity; others, such as the Burtinskaya Steppe, were severely damaged by overgrazing. Like the delicate ecosystems of the tundra, so the steppe requires around one hundred years to recover from environmental damage. In the first decade since the areas protected by the Orenburgsky Zapovednik came under protection, the steppe has begun a process of natural regeneration. The diversity of plant and animal species in the reserve grows with each year. The natural flora, repressed but nonetheless present even after half a century of intensive grazing, is beginning to rise from the soil; animals that earlier vanished from the region have returned in steadily growing numbers.

Despite the advances in conservation that have resulted from the formation of the reserve, several factors still threaten the future health of both the zapovednik and the unique species it protects. Occasional fires sparked by lightning in particularly dry years are a natural and necessary part of steppe ecosystems, but every year fires purposefully or accidentally lit by people spread into the territory of the zapovednik and destroy a generation of plants and insects, also leaving many birds and mammals without homes. Severe fires have raged through three of the four regions of the zapovednik, burning up to 100 percent of the territory.

A further problem is the relatively small size of the reserve, which inhibits the protection of species that regularly wander beyond the borders of the reserve. Although together the four regions of the zapovednik comprise an average-sized small zapovednik, the four regions are too isolated from each other (separated by a distance of about 150 kilometers) to create an integrated chain of protection.

The zapovednik staff is actively involved in scientific research, environmental education, and tourism projects.


Zapovedniks of Russia: Zapovedniks of Siberia, Volume II. Pavlov, D.S., V. E. Sokolov, and E. E. Syroechkovsky, eds. Moscow: Logata, 2000.

Pulyaev, Anatoly. The State Nature Zapovednik "Orenburgsky" (Booklet in Russian). Orenburg: Southern Ural, 1999.

Text by Lisa Woodson.

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