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Established: 1976
Size: 81,146 ha (812 km2)
Buffer zone: 24,000 ha (240 km2)

Gazaev, Mukhtar Alievich, Director

ul. Kezima Mechieva, 78
Kashkatau, Chereksky District, Kabardino-Balkaria Republic, Russia 361800

Tel: (7-866-36) 6-17-18


Kabardino-Balkarsky Zapovednik

Photo by Konstantin Mikhailov
© 2000 Konstantin Mikhailov

Kabardino-Balkarsky Images
Kabardino-Balkarsky Facts

At the southernmost edge of the Kabardino-Balkaria Republic, the snow-capped peaks of the Great Caucasus Mountain Range jut more than 5,000 meters into the sky. Numerous waterfalls tumble down from glaciers, eventually forming rivers that cut deep valleys from the rocky slopes. One of these glaciers, the mammoth Bezengi Glacier stretches 13 kilometers, making it the largest in the Caucasus Mountains. This austere world is the home of endemic Caucasian turs, snowcocks, and grouse. It is also a popular destination for mountaineers. And while the traditions and way of life of the local Balkari people are respectful of nature, balancing the interests of agriculture and nature conservation has caused conflict. As herds of domesticated animals spread at lower elevations in the mid-20th century, the forests and alpine meadows of the high mountains became an increasingly important refuge for native flora and fauna. For this reason, in 1976, the area was set aside as a protected area called Kabardino-Balkarsky High-Mountain Zapovednik.

Images of Kabardino-Balkarsky Zapovednik

Click on each photo to see a large version.

© 2000 Konstantin Mikhailov

Agile chamois are well-adapted to the reserve's mountainous terrain.


Bezengi Glacier
© 2004 Igor Shpilenok

The tip of the Bezengi Glacier cuts deep into a high mountain valley.


© 2000 Konstantin Mikhailov

Tur grow to large size in the sanctuary of the zapovednik.


Bezengi Valley
© 2004 Konstantin Mikhailov

Bezengi Valley holds the massive glacier of the same name.


Rocky mountains
© 2004 Konstantin Mikhailov

Barren, rocky cliffs characterize the reserve's high altitude geography.


Centaury flower
© 2004 Konstantin Mikhailov

A centaury flower clings to a steep slope.


Bezengi Glacier
© 2000 Konstantin Mikhailov

The 13-km Bezengi Glacier is the largest in the Caucasus Mountains.


Betony flowers
© 2004 Konstantin Mikhailov

Pink betony flowers blossom in sheltered valleys




Kabardino-Balkarsky Zapovednik Facts:

AnimalsVegetationGeographical FeaturesConservation StatusReferences


Kabardino-Balkarsky Zapovednik is situated at such high altitude that relatively few animals are able to survive in its severe conditions. Caucasian turs (Capra caucasica, C. cylindricornis) are a notable exception, perfectly adapted to the zapovednik's steep rocky slopes, alpine meadows, glaciers, and heavy snows. The ranges of the two endemic subspecies -- the West Caucasian and East Caucasian turs -- overlap in the Chegem and Bezengia Valleys, although truly every mountain valley in Kabardino-Balkaria has a population of tur that differs in color, size, or form from the tur in other valleys. The zapovednik provides rare sanctuary to tur, which have been so well protected that they have little fear of people. It is not unusual to find males weighing more than 150 kilograms bounding effortlessly across the cliffs, or herds of more than 100 individuals. In all, more than 5,000 tur live in the reserve.

Chamois (Rupicapra rupicapra caucasica), a mountain goat native to the Caucasus, can also be found in the zapovednik, though its numbers are few. Two subspecies of brown bears (Ursus arctos meridionali, U.a. caucasicus) wander throughout the reserve, finding varied meals everywhere they go, while lynxes (Lynx lynx) and occasional wolves (Canis lupus) feed on young tur and wild boars (Sus scrofa). Foxes (Vulpes vulpes), wildcats (Felis silvestris), badger (Meles meles), beech and pine martens (Martes foina, M. martes), ermine (Mustela erminea), and weasels (M. nivalis) also live in the zapovednik. Some voles (Microtus daghestanicus) live in subalpine meadows, while others such as the snow vole (M. nivalis) prefer rocky areas. Wood mice (Apodemus sylvaticus) and red squirrels (Sciurus vulgaris) are ubiquitous in the forests. European hares (Lepus europaeus) and shrews (Sorex caucasica, S. volnuchini) also make their homes in the zapovednik.

Kabardino-Balkarsky Zapovednik plays an important role in providing habitats to a number of rare birds. The Caucasian black grouse (Lyrurus mlokosiewiczi) can be found in subalpine areas and is a favored prey of the golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos). Other rare birds, such as the bearded vulture (Gypaetus barbatus), imperial eagle (A. heliaca) and peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus) also nest in the zapovednik.

Caucasian snowcocks (Tetraogallus caucasicus) spend most of the year at higher elevations, forming flocks of 20 to 30 birds. Chough (Pyrrhocorax graculus, P. pyrrhocorax) also form large flocks along cliffs, and great rosefinches (Carpodacus rubicilla) and alpine accentors (Prunella collaris) can be found in the broad, open spaces of alpine areas. Thrushes (Turdus sp.) live throughout the zapovednik's forests, while red crossbills (Loxia curvirostra), bullfinches (Pyrrhula pyrrhula), and boreal owls (Aegolius funereus) prefer pine forests. Rock finches (Petronia petronia) can be found everywhere in the zapovednik.

Five species of reptiles - three snakes and two lizards - live in the zapovednik: grass snakes (Natrix natrix), Renard's and Caucasus vipers (Vipera ursine, V. kaznakowi), Caucasian rock lizards (Lacerta saxicola), and slow worms (Anguis fragilis). Though often mistaken for a snake, the slow worm is actually a legless lizard, distinguishable from snakes by its blinking eyelids. The reserve also houses the brown frog (Rana macrocnemis), European green toad (Bufo viridis), and the rare and endemic Caucasian parsley frog (Pelodytes caucasicus). A local subspecies of brown trout (Salmo trutta morpha fario) inhabits the high mountain rivers.

Leopards (Panthera pardus) once roamed through these mountains, but there have been no recorded sightings since 1982.


Although scientists have yet to complete a full inventory of plant species in the zapovednik, preliminary counts have shown a high level of plant biodiversity. More than 1,000 species of vascular plants have been identified, including 87 species that are endemic to the Caucasus (of these 55 are endemic to the Central Caucasus, and six of these are endemic to the Kabardino-Balkaria Republic).

The sharp changes in altitude that characterize the zapovednik in turn create five distinct belts of flora. Forests are found in the lowest reaches of the reserve; sub-alpine flora can be found up to 2,600 meters above sea level; alpine flora stretches between 2,400 and 3,700 m; subnival between 3,300 and 3,700 meters; and nival above 3,700 meters. Together these last three categories cover more than 80 percent of the zapovednik's total area.

Pines (Pinus sosnowskyi) and birches (Betula raddeneana, B. litwinowii, B. pendula) dominate the zapovednk's forests. The birches grow smaller and more gnarled at higher elevations, until eventually, at around 2,400 meters above sea level, they give way to dense groves of Caucasian rhododendron (Rhododendron caucasicum). These shrubs, which display vigorous clusters of pale-pink blossoms each spring, account for more than one-fourth of the zapovednik's forests. Other shrubs that fill the forests include guelder-rose (Viburnum opulus), European black elder (Sambucus nigra), hazel (Corylus avellana), dog rose (Rosa canina), and local species of mountain ash (Sorbus caucasica). The grove of sea-buckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides) in the East Balkarskaya Valley at the mouth of the Gyulch-suu River is considered a natural treasure of Kabardino-Balkaria.

In the subalpine belt, fescue grasses (Festuca varia, F. ovina, F. sulceta) dominate dry, tall-grass meadows, often called "mountain steppes." Higher up, in the alpine belt, plant communities fall into two categories: alpine meadows and alpine heathlands. The meadows are filled with sedges (Carex oreophila, C. hirta, C. tristis, C. humilis, C. capitata, C. tenuiflora) and sweet vernal-grass (Anthoxanthum odoratum). The striking blossoms of primrose (Primula ruprechtii, P. algida), alpine cat's-tail (Phleum alpinum), forget-me-nots (Myosotis alpestris), and smartweed (Polygonum carneum) add color to these meadows. In colder meadows, lingonberries and bilberries (Vaccinium vitis-idaea, V. myrtillus), as well as local species of avens (Dryas caucasica) and lady's mantle (Alchemilla caucasica) grow upon a thick covering of moss and lichens.

Alpine heathlands, another plant community found in the alpine belt, consist of grasses or lichens and mosses. Kobresia (Kobresia schoenoides, K. persica, K. capillifolia) and sheep's fescue (Festuca ovina) are common, as are local species of violets (Viola montana) and pussy's toes (Anthenaria caucasica).

Few plants survive in the subnival belt, but those that cling to the bare rocks and cliffs include species of speedwell (Veronica gentianoides), saxifrages (Saxifraga carinata, S. dinniki, S. columnaris), cinquefoil (Potentilla cranzii), bellflowers (Campanula tridens, C. glomerata, C. colina, C. besenginica), and whitlow-grasses (Draba elisabethae, D. longisiligua). The purple blossoms of Hedysarum caucasicum open in the summer and Sempervivum pumilum forms small mounds of yellowish-green rosettes. At higher elevations, only isolated pockets of lichens can survive among the eternal snows of the nival belt.

Geographical Features

The Great Caucasus Range slices between the Black and Caspian Seas, dividing the Northern Caucasus from Georgia and Azerbaijan. Kabardino-Balkarsky Zapovednik is divided into five sections along major river valleys and lies at the southernmost point of the Kabardino-Balkaria Republic, straddling the Sovetsky and Chereksky districts. The only zapovednik in Russia whose title includes the adjective "high-mountain," Kabardino-Balkarsky Zapovednik includes five peaks that tower more than 5,000 meters above sea level. The highest point in the zapovednik is Mount Dykh-Tau (5,204 meters above sea level), followed by Koshtan-Tau (5,152 m), Shkhara (5,068 m), Dzhangi-Tau (5,058), and Mount Pushkin (5,033). The lowest point in the zapovednik lies at 1,800 meters above sea level.

With a tongue that stretches 13 kilometers, Bezengi Glacier is the largest gem in a network of glaciers that crown the Caucasus Mountains. The runoff from these glaciers forms the many streams and rivers that run through the zapovednik. Over time, they have cut deep valleys with steep cliffs and slopes rising on either side. Numerous waterfalls tumble over the rocky terrain, eventually joining the zapovednik's major rivers: the Chegem, Cherek-Bezengiskaya, Cherek-Balkarskaya, Sukan-Su and Khaznidon. Several mineral water springs also bubble up from the ground in various parts of the reserve.

The climate in the zapovednik is directly dependent upon relief, and conditions differ according to level of elevation. Snow covers the high peaks of the zapovednik year round, but its lower reaches are free of snow from April through November. In winter temperatures plunge to -50 degrees Celsius (-30 in valleys); July is the warmest month, with an average temperature of 12.6 degrees Celsius.

Conservation Status

An expedition that set out to explore the headwaters of the Cherek-Balkarskaya River in 1949 recommended that a zapovednik be founded in the area, but it was only in 1976 that 53,300 ha were set aside in Kabardino-Balkarsky Zapovednik. Gradually the territory was expanded to its present size.

But long before the zapovednik ever existed, Bezengia and other areas of the zapovednik were popular destinations for mountain climbers from around the world who wanted to test their skills on the 5,000-meter peaks. The 1960s in particular saw a large influx of tourists and the founding of permanent camps, such as the Bezengia mountaineering camp. When the zapovednik was founded, one challenge was deciding what to do about the hundreds of tourists who came to visit each year. The zapovednik's managers decided to encourage tourism but regulate it with a system of paid entrance to the reserve. For a nominal fee (about US$1), hikers are granted a pass to enter the zapovednik and climb up the mountains. Generally speaking, the hikers are serious about climbing and are rarely caught poaching.

Fulfilling its scientific mission has been problematic for the zapovednik and remains a primary challenge for the future. The combination of low salaries and extreme field conditions (due to the zapovednik's high elevation) make it difficult to keep enough scientists employed. At present, the zapovednik's rangers often play dual roles, guarding the territory as well as helping with scientific research. Although work continues on the annual "Chronicles of Nature," a complete inventory of the plants and animals of the zapovednik has yet to be completed satisfactorily.


Aiunts, K.P., and A. M. Amirkhanov, 1990. "Kabardino-Balkarsky Zapovednik". Published on the website of the Biodiversity Conservation Center (http://www.biodiversity.ru).

Akkiyev, B.I. "Karbardino-Balkarsky High-Mountain State Zapovednik", Zapovedniks and National Parks of the Northern Caucasus. Kavkazsky Krai Publishing Agency, Stavropol, 2000.

Interviews with zapovednik staff also provided information for this article. Special thanks to Muzhigit Akkiyev, Deputy Director of Science at Kabardino-Balkarsky Zapovednik, for reviewing this text.

Written by Lisa Woodson.