Protecting wetlands in Uzbekistan’s arid climate

February 2 is World Wetlands Day, a fitting time to talk about a team of young conservationists whose hard work has helped to secure the future of three important lakes in Uzbekistan.

Wetland ecosystems play a vital role in nature, helping to prevent flooding and erosion and filtering out pollutants from the water system. They are also rich in biodiversity and are home to many critical bird populations.

Perhaps nothing says more about mankind’s impact on these habitats than the disappearance of the Aral Sea in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.

Once one of the largest lakes in the world, the Aral Sea has been rapidly shrinking since the 1960s when the rivers that fed it were depleted through over-use of water. By 2007 it had shrunk to just 10% of its former size, and its decline continues to this day.

Discarded fishing net

Discarded fishing nets, such as this one near Akpetky Lake, pose a real threat to birds and other wildlife (photo credit: Oleg Kashkarov).

The loss of such an important wetland site has had a severe impact on Uzbekistan’s birds which have been forced to find other reservoirs along their migratory routes.

For this reason, a team of local students and conservationists set out to investigate the status of bird populations – and the key threats – at four sites, in the hope that they could help preserve some of the country’s remaining lake habitats.

Establishing Important Bird Areas

The team’s goal was to provide the data needed to create new Important Bird Areas (IBAs).

As Stuart Paterson, Conservation Partnership Programme Manager at Fauna & Flora International explains: “IBAs are key sites for conservation and play an important role in protecting biodiversity, including rare and endangered species. They usually cover small areas, making it possible to protect entire sites.”

The project, which was supported by the Conservation Leadership Programme and Save Our Species, also aimed to increase the field skills of the project team and its students, and to raise awareness locally about the importance of the region.

Seminar participants in Ayakagytma Village (Credit: Oleg Kashkarov)

A seminar in Ayakagytma Village goes down well (photo credit: Oleg Kashkarov).

During the course of the surveys, the researchers collected data on 250 bird species, including 16 that are globally threatened. They also provided training for 23 students and held two classes for school children and community members.

Thanks to the data provided by the team, the BirdLife Secretariat has approved the IBA status designation for three new sites:

  • The Akpetky Lake system which is situated in the Aralkrum Desert that was left behind as the Aral Sea retreated. This area is home to around 110 bird species.
  • The 4,000 km2 Sarykamysh Lake, which is the second-largest lake in Central Asia and is important for migrating birds as well as the many rare species that nest nearby.
  • Ayakagytma Lake, which is surrounded by the sandy dunes and saline marshlands of Kyzylkum desert and is an important rest stop and feeding ground for migrating and wintering birds.
The Endangered Egyptian vulture - Credit: Valentin Soldatov

The team found 137 bird species at Lake Ayakagytma, including 16 that are on the IUCN red list (such as this Endangered Egyptian vulture). Photo credit: Valentin Soldatov.

“The designation of these three new IBAs demonstrates how important wetlands are for biodiversity conservation in our arid zone,” said Anna Ten, Project Leader.

“We were also pleased with the achievements of the students, who assisted with training  for other students and seminars for local people and schoolchildren. This project has helped all of us to grow and has given us confidence that we can make a real difference in future conservation projects.”

Project team member Oleg Kashkarov added: “The cooperation of local people has been important to our work. In the future we hope they will appoint local caretakers to help conserve natural resources.”

Developing future conservation leaders

The Conservation Leadership Programme (CLP) is a partnership between Fauna & Flora International, Conservation International, Birdlife International and the Wildlife Conservation Society.

The CLP is working to promote the development of future conservation leaders, ensuring that they have the skills and knowledge required to address today’s most pressing conservation issues.