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Cold winter deserts of Turan (Turkmenistan)

Date of Submission: 18/12/2020
Criteria: (ix)(x)
Category: Natural
Submitted by:
Permanent Delegation of Turkmenistan to UNESCO
State, Province or Region:
Lebap, Ahal and Dashoguz provinces
Ref.: 6495
Other States Parties participating
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Deserts are a main and very divers formation of the global biosphere. Most of them are distributed in tropical-subtropical zones with arid climate. But deserts also occur in temperate zones with arid, cold winter climate. There are three regions under quite different biogeographical conditions: Western North America (Great Basin, Sonora), Patagonia in South America, and Central Asia (in wider sense).

The cold winter deserts of Central Asia can be subdivided according to one of the most accepted concepts by Petrov (1965) as in Walter (1968) and Schroeder (1998), namely into four subregions: Irano-Turanian deserts (I), Kazakh-Dzungarian semi-deserts and deserts (II), Central Asian deserts of Mongolia and North-China (III) as well as the high-altitude deserts in Tibet (IV).

In post-soviet countries, the cold winter deserts are often divided into “northern” and “southern” deserts. Both of them mostly extend across the post-Soviet countries, in particular Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Generally speaking, the “northern” deserts correspond with Kazakh-Dzungarian semi-deserts and deserts, whereas the “southern” deserts are equivalent to the Irano-Turanian deserts. The proposed serial transnational site “Cold winter deserts of Turan” includes component parts of the “northern” [Kazakh-Dzungarian (II)] as well as “southern” [Irano-Turanian (I)] deserts in the three countries.

With the serial transnational approach the diversity of the most important desert ecosystems as well as the different adaptation processes to extreme ecological conditions of the region will be represented by the best examples in the three countries. The “Cold winter deserts of Turan” would close a large gap in the World Heritage List, from ecosystems as well as from regional point of view.

Name(s) of the component part(s)

1. Repetek Biosphere State Reserve E63 05 16.558 N38 39 42.13
2. Bereketli Garagum State Nature Reserve E59 10 17.15 N39 51 26.15
3. Gaplangyr (Kaplankyr) State Nature Reserve E57 11 11.134 N41 22 55.121

Description of the component part(s)

The “Irano-Turanian temperate deserts” combine three separate nature reserves: Repetek Biosphere State Reserve, Bereketli Garagum Nature Reserve and Gaplaňgyr (Kaplankyr) Nature Reserve. These Nature Reserves are remotely distributed over the entire Karakum desert. They, together with their jointly managed Zakazniks, represent a variety of typical habitats for the cold winter deserts of Central Asia.

1. Repetek Biosphere State Reserve (Zapovednik) – IUCN category Ia. The establishment of the Zapovednik was preceded by the Repetek sandy desert scientific station, founded in 1912 by the Imperial Russian Geographical Society. The Nature Reserve was established in 1927 and was transferred 1941 to the Turkmen branch of the Academy of Sciences of the Soviet Union. In 1959, it was handed over to the National Institute of Deserts, Flora, and Fauna of the Ministry of Nature Protection of Turkmenistan. The Reserve became part of the Ministry of Agriculture and Environmental Protection of Turkmenistan in 1998. First director of the Repetek Biosphere State Reserve became the great desert expert Dubyansky, founder of the academic study of deserts in Central Asia.

Repetek Reserve is located in the Eastern Karakum, in the southern subzone of the Karakum, near to the Repetek railway station. Main objective of the Reserve is to study, protect, and restore the special and unique flora and fauna of Eastern Karakum, especially the black saxaul (Haloxylon ammodendron (syn. H. aphyllum) woodlands of Repetek and its surrounding areas.

Since 1979, the reserve is part of the UNESCO World Network of Biosphere Reserves. Under the authority of the Reserve is the Eradzhi Zakaznik/Wildlife Sanctuary, established in 1977. The total area is 64.600 ha.

2. Bereketli Garagum Nature Reserve (Zapovednik) – IUCN category Ia. The Zapovednik is one of the youngest protected areas of the country, established in 2013. It is located in the very heart of Central Karakum, far away from the next settlements or any human infrastructure. The establishment of the Nature Reserve was preceded by a statement of the President of the country, suggesting that protected areas should cover all unique landscape types to preserve biodiversity, especially in the Central Karakum desert. The establishment of the reserve enables the conservation of a complex of different desert types, among these sandy, clay and salt deserts – with unique fauna and flora. The total area is 87.400 ha.

3. Gaplangyr (Kaplankyr) Nature Reserve (Zapovednik) – IUCN category Ia. This Zapovednik is located in the North-Western part of Turkmenistan, in the Northern Karakum, and shares a border with Uzbekistan. The Reserve was established in 1979 to protect and restore the unique landscapes of the northern part of the Karakum deserts, astounding with its extreme and distinctive beauty, the diversity of the gene pool – urial (Ovis vignei), goitered gazelle (Gazella subgutturosa), kulan (Equus hemionus) and honey badger (Mellivora capensis). There are two Zakazniks under the administration of the Zapovednik: Sarygamysh and Shakhsenem. The total area is 926 203 ha. Main objective of Sarygamysh Zakaznik is the protection of birds of the water area of Sarygamysh Lake, of saiga antelope (Saiga tatarica) during their winter stay, of gazelle calving sites and reactivation and breeding of kulan. Main task of Shakhsenem Zakaznik is to preserve ungulates, including kulan. The role of the Gaplangyr (Kaplankyr) Nature Reserve is of invaluable importance in terms of protecting migratory species of ungulates with neighboring Uzbekistan.

Justification of Outstanding Universal Value

Criterion (ix): The component parts of the proposed transnational World Heritage Site “Cold winter deserts of Turan” reflect the diversity of geomorphological types of deserts, as outcome of ongoing processes of land surface formation. They contain most of the desert landforms as Goudy and Seely (2011) lists, among them dunes, pans, cavernous weathering forms, desert varnishes and rinds, lake basins with paleo shorelines, inselbergs, groundwater sapping, and including those not represented in World Heritage sites yet, like: dust storms and deflation surfaces, gypsum crusts, calcium carbonate crusts, salts and salt weathering, relict profiles, ancient river systems, alluvial fans, debris flows and natural arches. The diversity of desert landforms and ongoing land forming processes is reflected by corresponding communities of plants and animals, which are in ongoing processes of adaptation to changing ecological extreme conditions. These are characterized by cold winter with low precipitation, and by hot and dry summer, by sometimes strong wind with physical effects to plants and animals. In long-time and ongoing evolution, they developed different survival strategies.

All of the plant and animal species have incredible adaptation strategies, including morphological, physiological and behavioural, to the hostile environmental conditions of deserts. Organisms exploit favourable micro-climates within the desert ecosystem, no matter how unpredictable. Ephemerality and micro-climate exploitation are found in many desert plants. Specifically plant morphology, provides manifold diversity of lifeforms, many of them endemic to the Turanian, as well as xeromorphic structures like reduced leaves, extensive or deep roots, succulent and woody sprouts are typical adaptation strategies of plants. For each of the desert ecosystems of the Turanian there are typical vegetation communities.

Woodland of Saxaul (Haloxylon persicum and Haloxylon ammodendron (syn. H. aphyllum)) is one of the most distinctive and significant ecosystems of the cold winter deserts of Turan. These two only species of the genus Haloxylon, which is endemic in Central Asia, form large scale woody vegetation in sandy areas, all over the Turanian region from Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan to Kazakhstan. According to Rachkovskaya (2003) about 500.000 km² is the natural distribution area of these both species. Saxaul woodland is the most significant example for ongoing carbon sequestration and storage in deserts ecosystems (Thevs et al., 2013).

Gravel deserts are characterized by sparsely vegetation of life forms with deep woody roots and reduced sukkulent sprouts, like Anabasis ssp. (Chenopodiaceae). In salt pans and solonchak deserts woody and herbal sukkulents like Salicornia ssp. and Suaeda ssp. dominate the plant cover. Populus euphratica forms the azonal riparian forests in river floodplains.  

One of the special features of the cold winter deserts of Turan are ephemeral deserts, they represent an endemic form of desert ecosystems. Ephemeral plants depend on winter precipitation and ideally on loess substrates. During the shortest period between March and May the deserts starting to flourish and thus become an eye-catching event for a very short period before they disappear for one year to a yellowish, dry landscape. Annual plants and herbal geophytes use the short spring season (water from low winter precipitation, warming with increasing sun stand) for their life cycle (grow, bloom, fruit and outlast the dry hot summer and cold winter as seeds (annual plants) or in underground storage organs (bulbs, tubers of geophytes).

Not only plant species and vegetation adapt to the extreme life conditions of cold winter deserts, but also animals developed special survival strategies. Goudy and Seely (2011) state similarly, plant and arthropod cuticle, vertebrate integument and pelage and animal colouration present a variety of morphological adaptations. Water storage, ectopic fat storage and the shape and size of desert organisms are important adaptations for desert animals. Morphological adaptations are as varied as the diversity of desert ecosystems, but all contribute, in one way or another, toward tolerance of desert environments and the diversity of life they support.

Physiological and behavioural adaptations are also wide-ranging. These include tolerance of tissue to high temperatures, tolerance to dehydration, tolerance to cold – a specific pecularity of cold winter deserts, compared with hot deserts – adaptive heterothermy and behavioural thermoregulation. It is the myriad combinations of morphological, physiological and behavioural adaptations that have evolved in these diverse desert ecosystems that contribute to the high and varied biodiversity and endemism of the Turanian deserts. Animal adaptations to life in deserts are as varied as those of plants and often act in concert. Mobile and transboundary animal migrations such as movements of goitered gazelle (Gazella subgutturosa subgutturosa), kulan (Equus hemionus kulan), saiga antelope (Saiga tatarica) and urial (Ovis vignei), are a behavioural response to the changing habitat conditions in the course of the annual phenological circle. Specifically the migration of the ungulates justifies the occasionally occuring comparison of the Turanian cold winter deserts as the „Serengeti of the North“. Other approaches to deal with hot and arid seasons may take refuge in burrows or simply beneath the sand.

The herpetofauna is particularly species-rich in the cold winter deserts of Turan, with the flagship species the desert monitor (Varanus griseus). Typical representatives of sandy deserts are toad-headed agamas (Phrynocephalus), Eversmann’s gecko, Turkestan plate-tailed gecko, racerunners (Eremias ssp.) and sand boas (Eryx ssp.) (Rustamov, 2007).

Criterion (x): Overall in Turanian deserts approx. 1.600 plant species can be found, there of 246 Chenopodiaceae (15%), 148 leguminous plants (9%) and Cruciferae (6%). They are a diversity center of several genera, specialized to cold winter desert conditions. There are more than 100 species of Artemisia, 67 of Calligonum, 54 species of Salsola, 31 species of Zygophyllum, 26 species of Ammodendron as well as 22 species of Limonium (Schroeder, 1998).

As the justification for the criterion (ix) already suggests the Turanian cold winter deserts provide the full assemblage of species and desert landforms and are as such outstanding in its complexity but also in its huge dimensions. The Haloxylon formed sandy deserts alone make up an area of 500.000 km². The desert landscapes formed of loess, clay, gravel, gypseous, salt and riparian come on top of it. West (1983) states that the Central Asian cold winter deserts “are by far the largest in area” [compared to cold winter deserts in North and South America]. The sheer size of their area contributes to the opportunity for great diversity in all aspects of ecosystem structure and function. According to Magin (2005) and Lethier (2020), the cold winter deserts have unique ecological qualities, support numerous endemic species and, particulary the sand deserts, support great biodiversity. Central Asian desert ecosystems are part of WWF Global 200 priority ecoregions, the global “hotspots” with the highest demand for common conservation efforts. Olson and Dinerstein (2002) assess the temperate deserts ecosystems as “critical or endangered”.

Therefore, the existence of large and well protected areas to protect the fundamental ecological and biological processes in each of the desert landscapes as transnational component parts of one Turanian cold winter desert World Heritage Site is committing to this unique and outstanding part of the world.

Statements of authenticity and/or integrity

The proposed components of the transnational nomination represent the most intact, large scale and well protected sites of the cold winter deserts of Turan in Turkmenistan.

All three reserves are located in areas with the highest temperatures in Turkmenistan – the Eastern, Central, and Northern Karakum. They all broadly cover typical desert areas in Turkmenistan, involving stone, clay, sandy and salt deserts with unique natural features. The protected areas represent different ecosystems, such as depressions, low mountain ranges, sands and Solonchaks of the Unguz. The character of the relief of the reserve’s territory is due to the presence of flat, rocky, and prone areas of flat-topped plateaus, precipitous ridges, depressions, dry channels, aeolian, and other forms. This different geomorphological history leads to rich species diversity. Here, the transition from the Ustyurt-Caspian to the Karakum region of the Turan plain and desert province can be observed – a transition from the „northern” to „southern deserts”. Many area boundaries of endangered and rare species of flora and fauna, including endemics, cross here.

These areas were specially designed to study and protect the natural habitats of desert ecosystems, the migratory and breeding bird, and ungulate species in the area along the border with Uzbekistan. Only in these areas, natural white and black saxaul woodlands can be found. Their powerful roots serve as good sandstones for the moving dunes; during the long hot summer months and early autumn, saxaul woodlands are places where desert animals can shelter from the heat; they also bind and store carbon, provide nutritious food for herbivorous animals and help forecast the weather.

Justification of the selection of the component part(s) in relation to the future nomination as a whole

Main components of the transnational nomination „Cold winter deserts of Turan“ are located at the border of biogeographic areas where morphological processes and biodiversity dynamics are particularly intense compared to other regions. The main territory of the reserves is represented by species of sandy Karakum desert, which is a plain crossed by hills with a common east-west gradient of the surface, dominated by a ridge of lumpy and sandy dunes (barchans). The depressions between the ridges are often filled with solonchaks and takyrs. The vast Karakum desert region is divided into several geomorphological areas: Zaunguz Karakum (plateau), Central (lowland) Karakum, separated by the Unguz depression, and the south-eastern Karakum.

A characteristic feature of Central (lowland) Karakum is the representation of the plain of the ancient Amudarya, which ran in the Lower Quaternary. The continuous gentle longitudinal slope from the borders of Afghanistan to the Caspian Sea almost precisely matches the slope of the modern Amudarya. According to historical information, it is assumed that the ancient Amudarya, having filled its bed with sandy sediments, turned north, cutting through the Zaunguz Karakum, which was rising at that time, and began to pour its water into the hollows of the Aral Sea and Sarygamysh. After filling these potholes, water began to flow to the southwest and gave rise to the new Uzboy river. In the south-eastern Karakum area, the Amudarya streams were reconfiguring their ever-changing beds. The Zaunguz Karakum desert is characterized by a flat top plateau formed by dense continental sandstones. Between the Central and Zaunguz Karakum from west to east stretches a chain of linearly elongated depressions called “Unguz”.

In terms of zoogeography, the three reserves include the Palearctic desert fauna, a unique complex of Karakum wildlife that forms the core of typical desert species adapted to the extreme conditions of drought and heat in summer and cold in winter. On average, 70% of the desert insect fauna is Turanian endemic. The number of endemic reptiles is particularly high, including more than 10 species of typically Turanian forms: comb-toed gecko (Crossobamon eversmanni), toad headed agama (Phrynocephalus intercapularis), reticulate racerunner (Eremias grammica), striped racerunner (E. lineolata) and aralo-caspian racerunner. (E. intermedia), dwarf sand boa (Eryx miliaris) etc. Endemic to Karakum is one species Phrynocephalus rossikowi shammakowi. Over 250 bird species have been registered here, among these are the endemic Pander’s ground jay (Podoces panderi), or species, listed in the Red Data Book of Turkmenistan (2011), like desert sparrow (Passer simplex, IUCN LC), saker falcon (Falco cherrug, IUCN EN), houbara bustard (Chlamydotis undulata, IUCN VU), steppe eagle (Aquila nipalensis, IUCN EN), egyptian vulture (Neophron percnopterus, IUCN EN), cinereous vulture (Aegypius monachus, IUCN NT), and others. Red listed species have been registered also at the lakes of the nature reserves: dalmatian pelican (Pelecanus crispus, IUCN NT), great white pelican (P. onocrotalus, IUCN LC), greater flamingo (Phoenicopterus roseus, IUCN LC), ferruginous duck (Aythya nyroca, IUCN NT), etc. Among global threatend mammals are species like kulan (Equus hemionus, IUCN NT), goitered gazelle (Gazella subgutturosa, IUCN VU), urial (Ovis vignei, IUCN VU), and others.

The flora of the reserves includes more than 400 species, 145 of which are flowering plants of sand flora (Psammophytes). The most common are the amaranth family (Amaranthaceae), ranked first not only in terms of the number of species, but also in terms of its role in forming plant communities. The most significant members of this family – black saxaul (Haloxylon ammodendron (syn. H. aphyllum)), white saxaul (H. persicum), and Salsola (Salsola richterii). The role of the nature reserves for the conservation of endemic species is high: about 14% of species are endemic to the Karakum and Kyzylkum deserts; over 6 species are exclusively endemic to Karakum: Calligonum (Calligonum arborescens), Heliotropium (Heliotropium grande), Lipskyella (Lipskyella annua), Ferula karakumica (Ferula karakumica), etc.

Comparison with other similar properties

The World Heritage List contains of 14 desert properties only, all of them are located in tropical and subtropical regions. Cold winter deserts of temperate zone are not represented yet. The none existence of the cold winter desert is a gap in the World Heritage List (Magin, 2005; Lethier, 2020). Cold winter deserts and semi-deserts of the temperate zone (holarctic bio-geographical realm), are that distinctive in its taxonomical composition and climatic conditions compared to the diversity of tropical-subtropical deserts that they are considered as an own desert typology.

Comparably small areas of cold winter deserts are located in the Great Basin and Sonora in North America and in parts of Patagonia in South America. However, there is no one on tentative lists.

The overwhelming majority of all cold winter deserts are located in Central Asia (in wider sense with 4 subregions regarding Petrov 1965). The two western subregions of deserts in Central Asia (I, II) spread over the lowlands of Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, with its vast deserts Karakum, Kyzylkum, Muyunkum, Ustyurt Plateau and Aralkum (bottom of former Aral Sea). The share of deserts of the total countries territory of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan is between 80-90%. That is the scope of the proposed “Cold winter deserts of Turan”, which is to compare mainly with the Central Asian desert area of Mongolia and North-China (III).

One of the fundamental reviews of future priority sites for a credible and complete list of natural world heritage sites (IUCN 2004) identifies the cold winter deserts as the worldwide only biome (according to Udvardy 1975) not inscribed to the list of World Heritage Sites. A comparison of priority habitat types having potential for inscription as World Heritage Site of studies of IUCN/SSC, WWF, Birdlife International emphazises Central Asian deserts among 4 other deserts worldwide (IUCN 2004). A review of the representativeness of Udvardy’s Bigeographic Provinces in Central Asia concludes that the Turanian Province, Pamir-Tian-Shan Highlands and Aral Sea Province are the only ones in the five Central Asian Stan countries not represented in the World Heritage list at that date (Magin 2005). In the meantime the Pamir-Tien-Shan Highlands are represented with two sites (Western Tian Shan and Tajik National Park (Mountains of the Pamirs), that only Turanian and Aral Sea Biogeographical Provinces (regarding Udvardy) remain unrecognized in Central Asia (see table 1). 

Table 1 : World Natural Heritage Sites within Biogeographical Provinces of North and Central Eurasia (regarding Udvardy)

Udvardy Biogeographical Provinces of North and Central Eurasia

Number of WH Sites


Name of WH Sites / criterion




West Eurasian Taiga


Laponian Area (S) / iii, v, vii, viii, ix

The High Coast/Kvarken Archipelago
(S / Fi) / viii

Virgin Komi Forests (Ru) / vii, ix






Pontian Steppe


Danube Delta (Ro) / vii, x


Caucaso-Iranian Highlands


Western Caucasus (Ru) / ix, x


Altai Highlands


Golden Mountains of Altai (Ru) / x

Uvs Nuur Basin (Ru / M) / ix, x


Pamir-Tian-Shan Highlands


Western Tienshan (Ka, Uz, Ky) / x

 Tajik National Park (Ta) / vii, viii


Aral Sea



Note: Ro = Romania, Ru=Russia, Ru / M = Russia / Mongolia, S = Sweden, Fi – Finland, Ka = Kazakhstan, Uz = Uzbekistan, Ky = Kyrgyzstan, Ta = Tajikistan