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Cold winter deserts of Turan (Kazakhstan)

Date of Submission: 07/01/2021
Criteria: (ix)(x)
Category: Natural
Submitted by:
Permanent Delegation of Kazakhstan to UNESCO
State, Province or Region:
Aral and Almaty Regions, Kerbulak and Panfilov Districts, Kyzylorda Province
Ref.: 6496
Other States Parties participating

The Tentative Lists of States Parties are published by the World Heritage Centre at its website and/or in working documents in order to ensure transparency, access to information and to facilitate harmonization of Tentative Lists at regional and thematic levels.

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Property names are listed in the language in which they have been submitted by the State Party


Deserts are a main and very diverse 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 to 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. Barsakelmes State Nature Reserve, Aral Region, Kyzylorda Province

    Cluster Barsakelmes: N45 40 15 E59 51 06

    Cluster Kaskakulan: N45 39 25 E60 59 14

    Cluster Delta: N46 06 58 E60 48 32

  2. Altyn-Emel National Park, Almaty Region, Kerbulak District, Panfilov District

    N43 59 30 E78 41 39

    Description of the component part(s)

    The two nominated components from Kazakhstan are located in the northern, Kazakh-Dzungarian deserts and represent a variety of typical habitats for the cold winter deserts of Turan.

    1. Barsakelmes State Nature Reserve – IUCN Category Ia. Barsakelmes State Nature Reserve is one of the oldest protected area in Kazakhstan, established in 1939 on an island of the same name in the Aral Sea to preserve saiga antelope (Saiga tatarica) and goitered gazelle (Gazella subgutturosa). In 1953, the Turkmen kulan (Equus hemionus) was successfully introduced on the island. Before the Aral Sea dried out, the area of the reserve was 18,000 hectares. In the late 1990s, the island merged with the eastern onshore and many animals migrated. In 2006, the second cluster Kaskakulan with the surrounding dry seafloor – the main habitat of the kulan and gazelles – was added to the reserve. As a result, the territory of the nature reserve has increased by nearly 10 times to 160,826 hectares. In 2005, after the construction of the Kokaral dam in the North Aral Sea, the avandelta of the Syrdarya with unique wetlands was formed and included in the Ramsar List in 2012. The avandelta with a size of 2,300 hectares was added as third cluster to the Nature Reserve in 2020. In 2016, the protected area was designated as UNESCO biosphere reserve. In 2020, Barsakelmes SNR has won the National Award “Elim-Ai” as the best nature reserve of the Republic of Kazakhstan.

    2. Altyn-Emel National Park – IUCN Category II. The national park is located in the South-East of Kazakhstan between the Ili river and the Aktau mountain range. It covers an area of about 307,653 hectares. The national park was established in 1996 to preserve a unique natural complex, archaeological and historical-cultural monuments, and rare and endangered plant and animal species. The area comprises various habitats, including desert and semi-deserts, rocky areas, riparian forests, deciduous and spruce forests, as well as wetlands of the Kapchagay reservoir and Ili river. The national park has great importance for the conservation of ungulates. With more than 3,500 individuals, the national park hosts the fourth largest population of kulan in the world (Plakhov et al, 2012). Further, goitered gazelle (Gazella subgutturosa), argali (Ovis ammon) and Siberian ibex (Capra sibirica) occur in the national park. Large parts of the national park (197,600 ha) overlap with an Important Bird Area (IBA). National Park Altyn-Emel was identified as having potential for meeting World Heritage criteria, and in 2002 it was included in the Tentative List of Kazakhstan. In 2017, the national park was added to UNESCO’s World Network of Biosphere Reserves. 

    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 sparse vegetation of life forms with deep woody roots and reduced succulent sprouts, like Anabasis spp. (Chenopodiaceae). In salt pans and solonchak deserts woody and herbal succulents like Salicornia spp. and Suaeda spp. 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 peculiarity 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 spp.) and sand boas (Eryx spp.) (Rustamov, 2007).

    Criterion (x): Overall in Turanian deserts approx. 1.600 plant species can be found, there of 246 Amaranthaceae (15%), Asteraceae (11,2%), Poaceae (10,3%), Brassicaceae (8,6%) и Fabaceae (7,4%). They are a diversity center of several genera, specialized to cold winter desert conditions. There are more than 70 species of Artemisia, 18 of Calligonum, among them 13 species are endemic of Turan, 54 species of Salsola, 31 species of Zygophyllum, 6 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 transnational components are the most intact, extensive, and well-protected sites in the Turanian cold winter desert region in Kazakhstan.

    The Barsakelmes State Nature Reserve was initially created on an island. On the cluster area Barsakelmes, typical ecosystems of northern Turanian deserts have been kept practically without human impact on the ecosystems. The second desert cluster area Kaskakulan is located on the former island and the surrounding dry seafloor. It is a very remote and pristine area, which is difficult to reach. Here, worldwide unique succession processes towards the northern Turanian zonal desert type take place. For the cluster area Delta protected area regulations guarantee the conservation of a wetland complex as an example of tugai type of floodplain vegetation of Central Asia. A new 5-year management plan came into force in 2019 and is effectively implemented.

    The territory of the Altyn-Emel National Park represents a highly intact, large scale and well protected site in the central part of the Ili intermountain basin. The deserts of the national park contain typical, representative ecosystems for the northern, Kazak-Dzungarian deserts of Turan. According to Lethier (2020), the national park benefits from a good protection and management regime. Its integrity is satisfactory, with a very low level of threat. The national park is included in the WHS tentative list of Kazakhstan since 2002.  

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

    The Barsakelmes State Nature Reserve is located in the northern, Kazakh-Dzungarian deserts of Turan and covers desert and wetland complexes.

    The State Nature Reserve represents typical combinations of plants and vegetation communities of the Turanian deserts. Of global importance are the unique trends of succession development on the dried Aral Sea seabed. Observations of the mechanisms of primary succession, practically without human impact, provide important insights for understanding the processes involved in the formation of desert ecosystems.

    Two types of primary succession – psammosere and halosere – can be observed on the Aral Sea's dried seabed, from initial groups of annual saltpans to communities of saxaul and late-stage shrubs (Breckle et al., 2012). The vegetation of sandy deserts is characterized by psammophytic-shrub communities (Calligonum spp., Atraphaxis spinosa, Astragalus brachypus) and saxaul woodlands (Haloxylon ammodendron (syn. H. aphyllum), H. persicum).

    The flora includes 337 species of vascular plants, of which 14 are endemic in Kazakhstan (Breckle et al., 2012; Dimeyeva and Alimbetova, 2012): Artemisia aralensis, А. scopiformis, A. quinqueloba, A. aralensis, A. camelorum, Atriplex pungens, Petrosimonia hirsutissima, Calligonum crispatum, C. palibinii, C. humile, C. spinulosum, Astragalus brachypus, Tulipa borszczovii, Corispermum laxiflorum. Two sub-endemic species (Atriplex pratovii, Schoenoplectus litoralis subsp. kasachstanicus) occur, five species are listed in the Red Data Book of Kazakhstan (2014): Tulipa biflora, T. borszczowii, Atriplex pratovii, Schoenoplectus litoralis subsp. kasachstanicus, Nymphoides peltatа. Indigenous vegetation is characterized by communities of Anabasis salsa and Artemisia terrae-albae.

    The desert fauna includes (Breckle et al. 2012) two amphibian species (Bufo viridis, Rana ridibunda), 22 reptile species (46,9% from herpetofauna of Kazakhstan), 175 bird species, 23 of which are included in the Red Data Book of Kazakhstan (2010), among these are: steppe eagle (Aquila nipalensis, IUCN EN), Eastern imperial eagle (Aquila heliaca, IUCN VU), Asian houbara (Chlamydotis macqueenii, IUCN VU),  marbled teal (Marmaronetta angustirostris, IUCN VU), ferruginous duck (Aythya nyroca, IUCN NT), little bustard (Tetrax tetrax, IUCN NT), saker falcon (Falco cherrug, IUCN EN). There are 27 mammal species in the nature reserve, two of them included in the Red Data Book of Kazakhstan (2010): goitered gazelle (Gazella subgutturosa, IUCN VU), and Asiatic wild ass (kulan) (Equus hemionus, IUCN NT).

    The wetlands of the State Nature Reserve are typical for Central Asian river deltas. They provide important spawning places for fish, breeding sites for waterfowl, and resting places of migratory birds. Therefore, they have great importance in ecologically extreme desert conditions. The wetlands are characterized by reedbeds (Phragmites australis) and the oleaster-willow type of tugai (riparian) forests (Salix songorica, Elaeagnus oxycarpa) with diverse grass meadows.

    The fauna of wetlands includes (Dimeyeva and Alimbetova, 2012): 14 mammal species, 172 invertebrate species, three of which are listed in the Red Data Book of Kazakhstan (2010): emperor dragonfly (Anax imperator), giant Asian mantis (Hierodula tenuidentata), heather ladybird (Chilocorus bipustulatus) (Amazing world, 2005). There are 19 commercial fish species and 250 bird species, among these globally endangered or threatened: Dalmatian pelican (Pelecanus crispus, IUCN NT), red-breasted goose (Branta ruficollis, IUCN VU), ferruginous duck (Aythya nyroca, IUCN NT), white-headed duck (Oxyura leucocephala, IUCN EN), pallid harrier (Circus macrourus, IUCN NT), greater spotted eagle (Aquila clanga, IUCN VU), Eastern eagle (Aquila heliaca, IUCN VU), Pallas's fish-eagle (Haliaeetus leucoryphus, IUCN EN), cinereous vulture (Aegypius monachus, IUCN NT), saker falcon (Falco cherrug, IUCN EN), Asian houbara (Chlamydotis macqueenii, IUCN VU), black-winged pratincole (Glareola nordmanni, IUCN NT).

    The monitoring of the recently evolving desert landscapes in the Aral region has global importance for understanding succession processes in arid regions, development of new ecosystems and biota under continental conditions and for the formation of desert landscapes structures.

    The Altyn-Emel National Park is characterized by a stunning diversity of landscapes. Here, deserts and mountains, grasslands, riparian forests, wetlands and alpine meadows occur at one cluster site.

    The National Park is the richest in ungulates in Kazakhstan. Here, the main population of kulan in Kazakhstan with more than 3.500 individuals occur – the fourth largest population of kulan in the world (Plakhov et al., 2012). Furthermore, the national park hosts large group of goitered gazelles (more than 5.000 individuals), as well as argali (Ovis ammon) and Siberian ibex (Capra sibirica).

    The originality and diversity of the vegetation of the Altyn Emel National Park is determined by its position at the border of two botanical-geographical provinces – the Dzungarian and the Dzungarian-North-Tien-Shan provinces within the limits of the Iranian-Turanian subregion of the Sahara-Gobi desert region (Rachkovskaya et al., 2003).

    The flora of the Altyn-Emel National Park consists of 864 species of vascular plants, 28 of which are listed in the Red Data Book of Kazakhstan (2014). The flora includes a valuable gene pool of medical, herbal, aromatic, and forage plants. 

    Massive sandy deserts are located in the south-eastern part of the national park. The sands are dominated by mixed saxaul communities with black and white saxaul (Haloxylon ammodendron (syn. H. aphyllum), Haloxylon persicum), santal wormwood (Artemisia santolina), Calligonum junceum, and sand acacias (Ammodendron bifolium). In close proximity to groundwater, the sandy deserts are combined with meadow and riparian communities with plots of saltmarshes.

    Unique is the vegetation of the “Singing Sand Dune” (Aigai Kum). The sandy mountain itself, apart from the white saxaul groups, is surrounded by sparse thickets of Ephedra przewalskii, a rare species in Kazakhstan located at the extreme western point of its geographical distribution.

    The avifauna contains a combination of desert, dry rocky mountains and wetland species. In total, up to 280 species can be observed in the national park, including up to 160 breeding species. Globally threatened species are: yellow-eyed pigeon (Columba eversmanni, VU), Asian houbara (Chlamydotis macqueenii, VU), saker falcon (Falco cherrug, EN), Dalmatian pelican (Pelecanus crispus, NT), cinereous vulture (Aegypius monachus, NT) (BirdLife International, 2020).

    Comparison with other similar properties

    The World Heritage List contains 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 (according to 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
    Number Name


    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