Korgalzhyn: land of birds, saline lakes and blue sky

By Zhanna Shayakhmetova 

Korgalzhyn, a land of birds, is Kazakhstan’s first reserve listed in the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation’s (UNESCO) World Biosphere Reserve Network. For ornithologists, it is among the top five must visit locations.  

Last year marked the Korgalzhyn district’s 90th and nature reserve’s 50th anniversaries. Located 160 kilometres west of the capital, the reserve has 339 species of birds, 14 species of fish, four species of reptiles and two species of amphibians. Approximately 32 species of birds are listed in the Red Book of Threatened Species.

The Tengiz-Korgalzhyn lake system in the Akmola region was added to the Ramsar Convention List of Wetlands of International Importance in 1976. Lake Tengiz is the only lake in the country on the Living Lakes international network, which unites the world’s unique lakes.

UNESCO describes Korgalzhyn Biosphere Reserve as a natural complex of fresh and saline waters with coastal territories, which includes unique landscape characteristics of the Eurasian dry steppe zone.

“This makes it an important wetland site for migratory water birds. Potential fodder reserves of only one Tengiz Lake are able to provide food for 15 million birds. The most northern nesting population of flamingo is located here; its population in some years may reach 50,000-60,000 birds. For this reason, in 1974, Tengiz-Korgalzhyn lakes (part of the Biosphere Reserve) were included in the Ramsar list of internationally important wetlands,” according to its release.

Bird Paradise Visitor Centre 

The Korgalzhyn reserve visitor centre, operating since 2009, annually welcomes more than 4,000 local residents and foreign tourists. It is the starting point for all the tourist routes in the specially protected area.

“The Tengiz-Korgalzhyn Lakes belonging to the Korgalzhyn nature reserve are located at the intersection of the Central Asian-Indian and Siberian-East-African and Mediterranean bird migration routes. Due to this, the Tengiz-Korgalzhyn lake system is one of the most important wetlands for migratory birds in Kazakhstan and Central Asia. A huge number of birds fly along these paths in spring and autumn,” said a centre representative.

In 2007, the system’s lakes were included in the key ornithological areas of BirdLife International, a global partnership of conservation organisations (NGOs).

The reserve’s flora has more than 443 species of flowering plants, five of which are listed in the Red Data Book of Kazakhstan, including Schrenck’s tulip, a bulbous herbaceous perennial. There are no trees in the area.

The fauna is typical for the steppe and semi-desert zones. Approximately 42 species of mammals are registered, five of which are listed in the International Red Data Book, including saiga, Marmota bobak Muller, steppe mouse, gray hamster and steppe pouch.

Reserve research officer Aleksey Koshkin has been working in the scientific department for 43 years.

“Our reserve works in three directions including protection, science and environmental education. Our staff collaborates with schools and delivers lectures on environmental education. We also conduct research on ornithology, ichthyology, botany and the general chronicle of nature. Many people come to visit the museum and to know more about the area. This is the largest reserve of A1 category in the country. It is the highest category with a territory of 543 hectares. There are some difficulties with the protection because we have a large territory and there are cases of illegal hunting for animals,” he told EdgeKz.

The reserve offers visitors three guided ecological routes.

“Locals more often come to watch flamingos and white swans; as for foreign tourists, they are more interested in rare breeds of birds. The best period to visit is the middle and the end of May. At this time, people can see all kinds of birds. It is the time when the tulips bloom and the weather is warm,” he said.

Environmental observatory and its activities

The ornithological centre launched an environmental education programme in September for students at the Korgalzhyn Environmental Observatory. The project, implemented as part of the U.S. Embassy Small Grants Programme, is supported by the National Delphic Committee and biodiversity conservation fund.

“We are the only ornithology centre in Kazakhstan and we invite schoolchildren and their families to the study of birds in natural conditions. The centre also conducts scientific, educational activities for the study of the nature of Korgalzhyn Reserve,” said Korgalzhyn environmental observatory director Kuralai Tuspekova.

The project’s sustainability is provided by high demand and participation by educational organisations and NGOs. It aims to attract 8,000 bird watchers in the next three years. As a result, schoolchildren and their families will be involved in conserving natural diversity and have an opportunity to exchange information with enthusiasts around the world.

“More than 200 schoolchildren attended the course in the summer-fall period. We made a guide to ornithology and books about the birds in the reserve in two languages. We also agreed with schools in four districts about to organise courses this summer,” said she added.

The centre closely collaborates with the Institute of Zoology, Ministry of Education and Science, local and executive authorities, entrepreneurs and the forestry and wildlife committee.

Tuspekova recalled with warmth the moment she had the idea about the project.

“Once, we were driving with my family to the farm which is located 100 kilometres from Korgalzhyn. Suddenly, we noticed that a bird was sitting on every pillar. I saw the blue sky and a flap-bounding flight of a bird. It looked like a country flag. I was so amazed and happy. I thought that children should see this beauty, especially those who live in big cities,” she said.

Her family supported her plan to launch the educational project. They have a hotel in the village and decided to start reconstruction.

“We began to look for the organisations that deal with ornithology and environment in the country. We have signed a memorandum of cooperation with the Research Institute of Zoology. We also work with the biodiversity conservation fund. We also joined the U.S. Ornithologists Association of America,” she noted.

“We want every person to be proud of her or his country and nature and want to contribute to the development of cultural ecology. I think that learning begins with love for homeland. Children should know more about the ecological threats. We need to instill a respect for nature in them,” she added.

The course on ornithological observation was included in the school children’s environmental education programme. The target audience is 10-13.

“We presented the project to the regional department of education. This year, we will present this course to the Ministry of Education and Science to include it in the programme of additional education, although ornithological observations are listed in the compulsory schooling programme in most European countries,” said Tuspekova.

The observatory offers its services to international tourists, ornithologists and scientists. A full range of optical equipment is provided on site.

“We organise outbound tours and provide observation diaries developed by our ornithologists. Last year, approximately 120 foreign tourists visited our centre. This year, we are registering our guesthouse on the booking. We also promote sports tourism. Despite some problems with the infrastructure in the village, we intend to expand our services and to improve our work,” she noted.

Tuspekova has ambitions to move towards sustainable development and grow according to the eco-settlement principle.

“We will open a greenhouse and a small farm to integrate the local population into the project. We purchased equipment for two workshops at the guesthouse. We want children to make birdhouses at the carpentry workshop and to produce souvenirs. We invite young people from the socially vulnerable groups to work at the workshop for sewing souvenirs. There is a great demand for souvenirs. We are not building our business quickly, but we are glad to do what we love. My children are also passionate about volunteer work. This job brings joy to all my family members,” she added.

The region annually hosts the flamingo national festival for biodiversity conservation.

“Last year, we proposed a new nomination – an ecological fairy tale at the festival. Children participated by writing a fairy tale on a given topic. We invited 30 winners to Korgalzhyn. This was our contribution to the project. Our minimum course lasts three days. In 2018, the Republican School of Physics and Mathematics organised a summer camp with the participation of students from different countries. We collaborate with local authorities in terms of guidance and security of children’s groups,” she said.

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