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Established: 1991
Size: 150,079 ha (1,501 km2)
Buffer Zone:

Contact information:
Zateev, Aleksandr
Victorovich, Director

659760 Altai Republic,
Ust-Koksinsky raion,
s. Ust-Koksa, P.O. Box 24

Tel: (7-388-48) 2-29-46

One of Siberia's vital rivers, the Katun, flows from the heights of the central Altai Mountains. Gaining speed and volume with the merging of numerous springs and glacial streams high in the Katunsky Range, the river runs down through the mountains, passing taiga forests and meadows along its path. High above, steep slopes, snow-covered peaks, and mighty glaciers jut into the skies. Katunsky Zapovednik, named for the river that forms within its borders, protects this lofty world just north of the border between Russia and Kazakhstan, home to a host of wildlife, including the endangered snow leopard. First founded as a federal nature reserve in 1991, these pristine mountains have recently also attracted UNESCO attention, winning the protected area a place in the List of Natural World Heritage Sites in the Golden Mountains of Altai and the status of a biosphere reserve.

Photo © 1998 Rob Badger

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

Articles featuring this nature reserve in Russian Conservation News journal:

Katunsky zapovednik, RCN #26, page 23, 2001

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

© 1998 Igor Shpilenok

The Multa River links a series of three alpine lakes.

© 1998 Rob Badger

Siberian larch is one of the major species in the Siberian taiga.

© 1998
Rob Badger

Katunsky Zapovednik gets its name from the Katun River.

© 1998
Igor Shpilenok

The alpine terrain of Katunsky Zapovednik is covered with snow in September.

© 1998
Rob Badger

The Katun River is often cloaked in fog at dawn.


© 1998 Rob Badger

Middle Multa Lake is one in a chain of high mountain lakes.

© 1998
Rob Badger

Middle Multa Lake gets its pure waters from melting snow.

© 1998 Rob Badger

Rocky terrain is characteristic of the high mountains.

Zapovednik Facts:

The forests that blanket the steep mountain slopes of the reserve are home to a diversity of animal life. Squirrels (Sciurus vulgaris), chipmunks (Tamias sibiricus), and several species of shrews (Sorex spp.) are common in the mixed forest that covers much of the reserve. Other rodents that live in the zapovednik include the zokor or mole-rat (Myospalax spp.) and local species of bush mouse (Sicista napaea) and mole (Talpa altaica). Alpine hares (Lepus timidus) chase through the alpine meadows high in the reserve.

Three species of weasel (Mustela sibirica, M. nivalis, M. altaica) live in reserve. Sable (Martes zibellina), ermine (Mustela erminea tobolica), and mink (Mustela lutreola) can be found throughout the territory of the zapovednik, but prefer the shelter of the fir and larch forests in the forest-steppe regions of the reserve.

Larger predators, such as the fox (Vulpes vulpes), wolf (Canis lupus), wolverine (Gulo gulo), brown bear (Ursus arctos), and lynx (Felis lynx) find plenty of food among the rich fauna of the zapovednik. High in the rock tundra, the endangered snow leopard (Uncia uncia) hunts for small animals, such as the alpine pika (Ochotona alpina) and high-mountain vole (Alticola macrotis).

Water voles (Arvicola terrestris), narrow sculled voles (Microtus gregalis), Eurasian shrews (Neomys fodiens), and American mink (Mustela vison) make their homes along rivers in the reserve. The otter (Lutra lutra), a species considered endangered in the Republic of Altai but common in the reserve, lives year-round near the headwaters of the Katun River, which remains unfrozen for much of the winter. At times when the river is frozen, these animals walk along the Katun for kilometers in search of holes in the ice suitable for fishing.

Indeed, when winter temperatures plunge the high mountain forests and meadows of the zapovednik into heavy snows, animal life in the reserve changes sharply. Layers of snow over a meter deep hinder ungulates from finding food, and many of these animals leave the reserve in the winter, wandering along the Katun River toward lower elevations. But in the summer, the mountain forests of the zapovednik are home to multiple Siberian deer, or marals (Cervus elaphus), as well as moose (Alces alces), roe deer (Capreolus capreolus), and musk deer (Moschus moschiferus). Occasionally the rare Siberian ibex (Capra sibirica) and Altai argali mountain sheep (Ovis ammon ammon) can be spotted along the rocky slopes of Mount Belukha in the reserve's biosphere polygon.

Two species of myotis (Myotis mystasinus, M. daubentoni), a bat-like animal endangered in the Republic of Altai, live in the reserve. In all, scientists have recorded 47 species of mammals in the reserve.

Of the 120 bird species found in the zapovednik, 80 build their nests in the reserve, while the other 40 fly through during annual migrations or spend the winter. The ortolan bunting (Emberiza hortulana), European stonechat (Saxicola torquata), skylark (Alauda arvensis), and horned lark (Eremophila alpestris) are quite common throughout the territory of the reserve. The wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe) builds its nest and raises its young in the burrows of the Alaskan ground squirrel (Citellus undulatus). The forest-steppe landscape is the favored habitat of the kestrel (Falco tinnunculus), an indefatigable hunter of mouse-like rodents. Meanwhile the golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) and peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus) prefer building their nests in the sheer cliffs common to the reserve.

In the forest belt, bird life thrives along noisily gurgling streams that carry clear, cold water along valleys. The dipper (Cinclus cinclus) is characteristic of such places, fearlessly diving onto rapids and turbulent waters. In the summer, gray wagtails (Motacilla cinerea) and common sandpipers (Tringa hypoleucos) hop along the shores in search of food. Occasionally horned and black-necked grebes (Podiceps auritus, P. nigricollis) can be spotted in and around lakes in the reserve. This unusual bird holds its offspring on its back, where the fluffy gray young can hide in their parents' feathers at the slightest sign of danger.

In the forests bird life is particularly active in spring, when nesting birds return from their annual migrations. The woods fill with the songs of newly returned tree pipits (Anthus trivialis), warblers (Phylloscolus spp.), and thrushes (Turdus spp.). Meanwhile, the hazel grouse (Bonasa bonasia), European nuthatch (Sitta europaea), and Eurasian nutcracker (Nucifraga caryocatactes) are already busy at work tending their nests. Capercailles (Tetrao urogallus) and black grouse (Lyrurus tetrix) are rarer in these forests.

The mountain tundra of the zapovednik provides a home for alpine and tundra species, such as the willow and rock ptarmigan (Lagopus lagopus, L. mutus), Altai accentor (Prunella himalayana), and Hodgson's rosy finch (Leucosticte nemoricola). Occasionally the endemic Altai snowcock (Tetraogallus altaicus) can be glimpsed in these mountain heights.

The buffer zone of the zapovednik plays a particular role in preserving a diversity of bird life, providing nesting grounds for the endangered black stork (Ciconia nigra). Moreover, a number of species fly regularly between the zapovednik and its buffer zone, including the imperial eagle (Aquila heliaca), gray crane (Grus grus), demoiselle crane (Anthropoides virgo), and solitary snipe (Gallinago solitaria).

Only three species of reptiles can survive in the high mountains of the reserve: two species of snakes, the mamushi (Agkistrodon halys) and common adder (Vipera berus), and one lizard (Lacerta vivipara). The waters that flow through the reserve, however, teem with eight species of fish, including the locally endangered (Brachymystax lenok), as well as Siberian graylings (Thymallus arcticus), minnows (Phoxinus phoxinus), burbots (Lota lota), and Siberian bullheads (Cottus sibiricus).


The broad range of elevations in Katunsky Zapovednik provides ideal conditions for a variety of vegetation ranging from steppe and meadow to forest and high mountain tundra communities. Scientists have identified nearly 700 species of vascular plants in the core region of the zapovednik - up to 1000 in the biosphere reserve in its entirety - including 20 species listed in the Red Data Book of the Republic of Altai.

The most biologically diverse regions of the reserve are found in the lower elevations where steppe communities dominate, generally on the southern mountain faces that receive the strongest beams of sunlight. In these regions, up to 60 species of vascular plants may grow within a space of 100 square meters. Various species of grasses comprise the basis of these communities: an endangered feather-grass (Stipa pennata), crested hair-grass (Koeleria cristata), and a local species of oat-grass (Helictotrichon altaicum). Several species from the onion family (Allium spp.), including an endangered endemic onion (A. altaicum) bring color to these grasslands.

Forests and meadows cover the majority of the core zone of the zapovednik. Taiga forests, which blanket many of the zapovednik's steep slopes, include a broad range of tree species and types of forests. Around 1700-1900 meters above sea level on northern-facing slopes, deciduous forests are common. Along the treeline in the subalpine zone, mixed cedar and deciduous forests blend with high grasses and shrubs, such as melancholy thistle (Cirsium heleniodes), northern monkshood (Aconitum septentrionale) and small species of birches (Betula rotundifolia) and willows (Salix glauca). In the valleys, firs dominate, while willow groves (Salix viminalis, S. phylicifolia, S. pentandra) and mixed fir forests line the banks of the Katun River and its tributaries.

The short grass meadows interspersed among the forested slopes of the reserve and along the Katun River are particularly unique in the variety of plant communities they support. Steppe species such as purple-stemmed cat's tail (Phleum phleoides) and fescue grass (Festuca spp.) may grow in the same small meadow with cock's foot (Dactylis glomerata), northern bedstraw (Galium boreale), and even high mountain flowers, such as local species of gentians (Gentiana macrophylla) and violets (Viola altaica).

Around 2000 meters above sea level this unique blend of forest and meadow flora gives way to a belt of mountain tundra. Lichens and dryads, such as mountain avens (Dryas oxydonta), dominate these high meadows, which play a particularly important role in preserving endangered subalpine and alpine flora of the Altai region. Locally endangered plants, including species of Stemmacantha carthamoides or Rhaponticum carthamoides, French honeysuckle (Hedysarum theinum), and monkshood (Aconitum decipiens) are common in these regions. Rocky passes and moist alpine meadows are home to several rare species of roseroot (Rhodiola algida, R. rosea, R. coccinea). Various species of saxifrage (Saxifraga oppositifolia, S. terektensis, S. sibirica) and rosebay willow-herb (Chamaenerion latifolium) brighten meadows in summer with their many-colored blossoms.

Geographical Features

Katunsky Zapovednik sits in the heights of the central Altai Mountains, located in the southern region of the Autonomous Republic of Altai along the border with Kazakhstan. The zapovednik includes the southern slopes of the Katunsky Range and parts of the northern slopes of the Katunsky and Listvyaga Ranges. Some of the highest peaks in the region are found here, reaching as high as 3,280 meters above sea level. The lowest point of the zapovednik sits 1,300 meters above sea level.

Glaciers, past and present, played a principle role in carving the sharp peaks, deep valleys, and sharp ravines that characterize these mountains. Indeed, the largest glacial system in all of Siberia runs through the reserve, involving 148 individual glaciers covering a territory of nearly 80 square kilometers. Mountain streams flowing from these glaciers and bubbling up from underground springs tumble down the steep and rocky slopes, eventually finding their way into the mighty Katun River. Multiple lakes augment the mountains and forests of the reserve. The three Multa Lakes form a particularly picturesque cascade along the Multa River valley.

Favorable wind patterns lend the region a considerably mild climate despite its location in a region known for extreme weather conditions. Winter temperatures hover between -20 degrees Celsius in the high mountains and -16 in the valleys. Meanwhile, summer temperatures range between about five to 15 degrees Celsius. Nonetheless, snow covers the ground through most of the year. Average annual precipitation can range from 500 to 1500 millimeters.

Conservation Status

The idea to form a zapovednik in the high mountains of the central Altai began in 1917 and later received support in the 1960s as researchers working in the area noted the need for increased protection of unique high-mountain ecosystems and animals that were becoming endangered. After decades of discussion in the press, regional government officials rejected initial recommendations for a large reserve covering a territory most representative of landscapes unique to the central Altai, instead creating a 1,500 square kilometer zapovednik in a region of little interest for the country's economic development.

Although far from large population centers in Russia, the zapovednik still suffers from illegal use, particularly from the Kazakhstan side, which is more easily accessible. Long before the founding of the reserve, people used the region for various purposes, including tourism, bee-keeping, hunting, fishing, and mining. Beginning in the 1960s, a sharp rise in the size of livestock herds - mainly cattle, horses, and sheep - in Kazakhstan led to widespread pasturing on the current territory of the zapovednik, a practice which continues illegally to this day. Illegal logging and poaching, practices that began long before the founding of the zapovednik, also continue despite the efforts of zapovednik staff to curtail illegal entry onto the reserve.

In 1998, UNESCO included Katunsky Zapovednik in the list of Natural World Heritage Sites as one of five sites listed in the "Golden Mountains of Altai." Then just over a year later the protected area was named a biosphere reserve, the designation of an area as a model of environmentally sustainable development. The initial territory of the zapovednik was appointed as the core (strictly protected area) of the reserve, and the buffer zone as the buffer of the core. A new biosphere polygon - a strategic area for sustainable development - included Belukha National Park and the area on the right bank of the Katun River.

Scientific research began in the zapovednik a year after its founding, gaining prestige and experience with each year. Projects to monitor critical populations of snow leopards within and outside the territory of the zapovednik have received particular attention in recent years. In addition to studying natural systems of the central Altai mountains, zapovednik staff have studied traditional and sustainable natural resource use in the area. They have also directed particular attention to developing environmental tourism within the biosphere reserve.


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

Additional information provided by zapovednik staff.

Text by Lisa Woodson.

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