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Cold winter deserts of Turan (Uzbekistan)

Date of Submission: 29/01/2021
Criteria: (ix)(x)
Category: Natural
Submitted by:
National Commission of the Republic of Uzbekistan for UNESCO
State, Province or Region:
Republic of Karakalpakstan, Navoi region
Ref.: 6506
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 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. Complex (landscape) reserve “Saigachy” N44 52 18 E57 32 29
2. State sanctuary “Sudochye-Akpetki” N43 27 06 E59 22 27 
3. “Southern Ustyurt” National Park N41 58 31 E56 34 52
4. “Central Kyzylkum” National Park N42 45 37 E63 8 36

Description of the component part(s)

Nominated component partsof Uzbekistan are located in the western part of the Republic. Deserts are distributed in the following regions: Ustyurt Plateau and surrounding territories, Southern Aral Sea, Lower Amudarya, Northern and Central Kyzylkum, Southwest Kyzylkum. Nominated component partshave the status of protected natural areas of I-IV categories of IUCN.

1. Complex (landscape) reserve “Saigachy” – IUCN category Ib.

The component partis located at the Ustyurt Plateau in its northern part with a size of 628.300 hectares. Atthe territory there are 2 types of representative ecosystems with characteristic faunistic complexes:
  • Deserts and semi-deserts are represented at the territory by a gravelly desert, with a characteristic faunistic complex, based on 15 species of mammals, 9 – birds, 9 – reptiles;
  • Foothills and low mountains, represented at the territory by typical habitats – cliffs of the Ustyurt plateau with a characteristic faunistic complex, based on 7 species of mammals, 11 – birds, 7 – reptiles.
  • At the territory there are 15 rare and globally threatened species of vertebrates: saiga antelope (Saiga tatarica), goitered gazelle (Gazella subgutturosa), Brandt’s hedgehog (Hemiechinus hypomelas), Turkmen caracal (Caracal caracal michaelis), white-tailed sea-eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla), black vulture (Aegypius monachus), short-toed eagle (Circaetus gallicus), Easternimperial eagle (Aquila heliaca), tawny eagle (Aquila rapax), golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos). At the well preserved areas of the component part, the houbara bustard (Chlamydotis undulata) is regularly nesting. Out of the rare and threatened reptiles, there are: Pallas’s coluber (Elaphe dione), desert monitor lizard (Varanus griseus), Central Asian tortoise (Agrionemys horsfieldii). Only at that territory of northern Ustyurt peculiar species of rodents not found in other regions of Uzbekistan are present, such as little groundsquirrel (Spermophilus pygmaeus), great jerboa (Allactaga major), lesser fat-tailed jerboa (Pygeretmus platyurus), thick-tailed three-toed jerboa (Stylodipus telum).
2. State sanctuary “Sudochye-Akpetki” – IUCN category IV.
The component part is bordering to the Ustyurt Plateau, located east of it and has an approximate size 280.000 hectares. The protected area is represented by four clusters combining desert and wetland areas. Habitats include large shallow freshwater and salt lakes, dense reed belts and shrubs, salt marshes, swampy areas, patches of saxaul, deserts and semi-desert with bluffs of chink to the Ustyurt plateau. The main conservation objects are rare and globally threatened water birds and waders like: great white pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos), dalmatian pelican(Pelecanus crispus), pygmy cormorant(Microcarbo pygmaeus), little egret (Egretta garzetta), glossy ibis (Plegadis falcinellus), greater flamingo (Phoenicopterus roseus), mute swan(Cygnus olor), ferruginous duck (Aythya nyroca). Also noted atthe territory: white-tailed sea-eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla), short-toed eagle (Circaetus gallicus), Easternimperial eagle(Aquila heliaca), golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos Linnaeus), little bustard (Tetrax tetrax), pin-tailed sandgrouse (Pterocles alchata). Out of the mammal fauna the charismatic goitered gazelle (Gazella subgutturosa) is to mention. Of the rare and threatened reptiles are desert monitor lizard(Varanus griseus) and Central Asian tortoise(Agrionemys horsfieldii).

    The establishment of the protected area is planned for 2021.

    3. “Southern Ustyurt” National Park – IUCN category II.
    The component partincludes 2 clusters, most notible for their abiotic characterisitics, together their approximate size sums up to 1.447.143 hectares. Landscape object “Northern Sarykamysh and Assake-Audan Depression” – the territory is part of the Sarykamysh depression. It is a relict bay of an ancient reservoir much larger than the Aral Sea when it still had its full sizein the first half of the 20th century. It is a witness of the geomorphological development and the many changes of landscapes, habitats and pattern of species comunities of the desert region.

    The geomorphological object “Dry Lake”, is a rare phenomenon at global level, indicating the fall of an asteroid at its territory, presumably in the Middle Neogene (meteorite crater of oval shape with a size of 7x10 km, with a maximum depth of 40 m). A significant number of plant species endemic for the Ustyurt flora disperse over the territory; 4 plant species are included in the Red Data Book of Uzbekistan.

    Rare and globally threatened vertebrate species (19) are also found on the territory, including endemic species. Endemic species (subspecies) of vertebrate animals as Ustyurt urial (Ovis vignei arkal), Pander’s ground-jay (Podoces panderi), steppe-runner (Eremias arguta), Central Asian endemic – Central Asian tortoise(Agrionemys horsfieldii) occure at the territory.

    4. “Central Kyzylkum” National Park – IUCN category II.
    The component partconsists of two sections, that sum up to an overal size of about 1.083.000 hectares: northern (Bukantau) and southern (Mingbulak) clusters. The territory represents almost all the landscape diversity of the Kyzylkum desert. There are also unique objects of abioticnature at the territory: like paleontological (Zharakuduk, Itemir), the “Aksai” statigraphic object, the “Complex of sand massifs of various types” and the “Kulatay” topographic object (the lowest point in Uzbekistan with 16 m above sea level). Flora of the territory include 6 endemic and 12 subendemic species, 11 species are listed in the Red Data Book of Uzbekistan (2009). At the territory 26 rare and globally threatened species of vertebrates occure. Rare and globally threatened wintering and nesting waterfowl and waders are observed around the lakes of the Minbulak depression. The territory is characterized by the occurance of a large number of endemic species of vertebrates, such as rare and endemic species of jerboas and Pander’s Ground-jay (Podoces panderi). Of the rare and threatened species of mammals, goitered gazelle (Gazella subgutturosasubgutturosa) is characteristic. Of the rare and threatened reptiles Central Asian tortoise (Agrionemys horsfieldii) and desert monitor lizard (Varanus griseus) occure.

    The establishment of the protected area is planned for 2021.

    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) list, 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 ethering 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 life forms, many of them endemic to the Turanian, as well as xeromorphic structures like reduced leaves, extensive or deep roots, suссulent 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 succulent sprouts, like Anabasis ssp. (Chenopodiaceae). In salt pans and solonchak deserts woody and herbal succulents 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 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 spp.), Eversmann’s gecko (Crossobamon eversmanni), Turkestan plate-tailed gecko (Teratoscincus scincus), 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 (Schröder 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 opportunitiy 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, particularly 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 serial transnational component parts represent the most intact, large scale and well protected sites in the Turanian cold winter desert region. For the component parts recommended by Uzbekistan, landscapes have a comparably high degree of conservation. Territories contain representative ecosystems for the Turanian cold winter deserts and intend to preserve typical desert and chink ecosystems, rare threatened and endemic species of plants and animals. The given environmental status of the territories contribute to the preservation of conservation targets and complexes.

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

    Territories with typical vegetation and typical faunistic complexes are representative for the Ustyurt, Kyzylkum districts of the Turan desert province. The types of vegetation that are most characteristic of the province are presented here – semi-shrub vegetation of the gypsum desert, black-saxaul vegetation of solonchak deserts, and halophytic vegetation of solonchaks. Territories cover the main types of representative ecosystems with typical habitats that are significant in terms of biodiversity conservation: foothills and low mountains; sandy, gravelly and solonchak deserts. The territories are characterized by a typical desert fauna of the Turanian province, including representatives of rare, endangered and endemic animal species.

    Joining these component parts will contribute to the representativeness and completeness of the very diverse entire transnational nomination.

    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