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Ustyurt: Natural Landscape and Aran Hunting Traps

Date of Submission: 25/08/2021
Criteria: (iii)(v)(viii)
Category: Mixed
Submitted by:
Permanent Delegation of Kazakhstan to UNESCO
State, Province or Region:
Mangistau Region, Karakiya District
Coordinates: N43 20 E54 70
Ref.: 6571

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Arans are the ancient hunting traps made in the form of the low-level stone walls mainly located along the cliffs of the Ustyurt Plateau and Mangyshlak Peninsula both situated between the Aral and the Caspian Seas. The western cliffs of the Ustyurt Plateau are located on the territory of the Karakiya District of Mangistau Region of the Republic of Kazakhstan. Generally, flat Ustyurt Plateau ends by numerous high canyons of several hundred meters high called “chink”, many of which are characterized by a large number of caverns, caves, platforms and springs providing the water sources for the local wild species.

On the territory of the Mangistau Region, the stone-made hunting traps and trap-holes are situated along the almost whole western cliff of the Ustyurt Plateau. They served for catching a large number of wild steppe antelopes (saiga), goitered gazelles and moufflons that normally try to avoid the low-level stone walls and prefer to run along them. The entire construction of these hunting traps is based on this behavioral particularity of the animals. Arans were set up near the cliffs that were forming the natural barrier for the animals on one side. These corridors were ending in the form of a massive corral with the big trap-holes on the corners. The hunting beater needed to correctly send the pack of wild animals into these hunting traps, where at some point the animals were falling into the trap-holes. This way of hunting required a large number of participants. On the plan, arans have the forms of the arrows, triangles, rectangular, five-pointed starts etc. Chronologically the hunting traps were used since the Bronze Age until the modern period of time. It is also worth to mention that the hunting traps on the Ustyurt Plateau are one of the parts of a complex cultural and archaeological landscape, which includes the remains of the ancient settlements, fortresses, burial grounds, necropolises, religious constructions, springs etc.

Ustyurt provides not only the history of ancient people’s life in the harsh climatic conditions, but also the history of Earth itself. The soil layers of the cliffs due to their altitudes from -65 to +340 m above sea level seem like a geological history book, where each page formed by marine deposits left by Tethys millions of years ago is clearly seen and easy to read.

The landscapes that look extraterrestrial and unreal are formed by geomorphological structures such as Karyn-Zharyk depression. It is a large deflection, composed by highly saline sand and clay deposits of the Caspian transgressions (Upper Cretaceous dense marls of the Upper Pliocene age). Ancient and modern processing of marine sediments led to the formation of a narrow mass of hilly-ridged sands, stretching from north to south for more than 100 km. In some places, the bottom of the basin is represented by ridge-hollow sand forms; in others, it is occupied by vast masses of salt marshes and solonetz. In addition, saline-sandy formations typical of Western Kazakhstan are found here - salty mud, takyrs and khaki. They gradually become lakes – “sors”. The largest sor of Ustyurt reserve is Kenderli-sor. It occupies vast area and represents areas of accumulation of liquid and semi-liquid salty mud, which sometimes is more than a dozen meters deep. In the northern part of the Karyn-Zharyk depression a peculiar anticlinal uplift – Mount Karamaya – is observed, with a height of more than 100 m and a length of about 15 km. In addition, there are elements such as outliers and chukalaks - large, up to 5 m high, steep rounded or elongated-oval hills, composed of a mixture of melkozem, sand and finest salt dust. The history of landscape formation is very vividly seen in the various relief elements described above.

Justification of Outstanding Universal Value

The way of utilizing the aran hunting traps was a particular cultural phenomenon for the territory of the Ustyurt Plateau, which provided a perfect long natural barrier for the ancient hunters. The same kind of hunting technique was impossible to be used on the flat Eurasian deserts and steppe regions on most of the territory of modern Kazakhstan. Therefore, arans have an Outstanding Universal Value as the exceptional testimony to cultural traditions of the ancient civilizations and as the outstanding example of the human interaction with the natural environment.

The territory reflects significant geological processes of the earth surface development. Due to the peculiar geomorphological and physical geographical peculiarities of the relief the locations of fossil animals, mainly marine, of various geological periods are widely distributed within the territory. The history of landscape establishment is clearly seen in the relief elements.

Criterion (iii): The scientific studies of the region show that the most ancient hunting traps correspond to the VII-VIII centuries BC, while most of them belong to the Early Iron Age period. The territory of the State Natural Reserve of Ustyurt has a huge concentration of aran hunting traps (68 in total: 50 on the cliff of Karamaya, 10 near the area of Kokesem and 9 near the area of Kenderli). This concentration of arans is the most well-studied and well-remained comparing to other similar sites situated in Kazakhstan outside of the Ustyurt Reserve.

Criterion (v): The use of arans and the cliffs of the Ustyurt Plateau for making the hunting corridors for the chased wild animals demonstrate an outstanding ancient way for interacting with the natural landscape that was massively used the by local communities of the Bronze Age period. The existence of these low-level constructions shows that the ancient people were not only hunting the wild animals but also studying their behavioral particularities for the better organization of the hunting process.

Criterion (viii): The outcrops, widely distributed within the territory of Ustyurt, reveal a whole spectrum of horizons and outcrops of marine paleontological fossils belonging to various eras. The most often found fossils such as belemnites, ammonites, sea urchins, mollusk shells, etc. relate mainly to the Cretaceous period. Among other findings there are petrified traces of animals - representatives of the hipparionic fauna (hipparion, saber-toothed tiger, etc.), dating from the Miocene to Pleistocene period.

Statements of authenticity and/or integrity


The western cliff of the Ustyurt Plateau and especially the territory of the State Natural Reserve of Ustyurt is almost an unpopulated area. It counts only three small buildings used by the rangers working for the Ustyurt Reserve and a few border outposts situated outside of the territory of Ustyurt Reserve. The closest big city (Zhanaozen) is situated in more than 200 km from the border of the Reserve, while all closest villages are situated in several dozens of km from it. Moreover, the territory of Ustyurt Reserve is closed for the uncontrolled visits and has only several dirt-roads on its territory. From the climatic point of view, the territory of the Reserve is characterized by extremely hot temperatures in the summer period and a low annual level of precipitation.

Due to the above-mentioned factors, the territory of the State Natural Reserve of Ustyurt is a far-situated area from any modern economic activities with very limited physical access. These conditions contributed to the good state of the authenticity of the cultural heritage sites including the aran hunting traps. As the result, there is almost no anthropogenic negative impact on the hunting traps of the Ustyurt Reserve, most of which are currently look exactly the same as they were made at the end of Bronze Age – beginning of the Early Iron Age.


The aran hunting traps are not limited by the territory of the State Natural Reserve of Ustyurt. Other concentrations of arans follow the western cliffs of the Ustyurt Plateau on the north and on the south of the Reserve. However, initial studies of these hunting traditions show that the area of the State Natural Reserve of Ustyurt has the biggest concentration of arans. As the Nature Reserve has limited access to its territory and management institution that control and monitor the state of local flora and fauna, it may also provide the protection to the cultural heritage on its territory such as arans.

The cliffs with ancient geological outcrops are registered in many parts of Mangistau peninsula. At the same time, their biggest concentration in intact form is found in the limits of Ustyurt State Nature Reserve. The nature reserve was established in 1984, and before that this area was not populated, ensuring the wholeness and intactness of the outstanding universal value of this territory. Additional geological outcrops in the limits of Zhabayushkan reserve and Kyzylsai natural park, and some other locally protected areas will also be considered for the nomination.

Comparison with other similar properties

As for September 2019, the World Heritage List has no identical properties to Ustyurt and the combination of its natural and cultural heritage components. The same kind of hunting technique was used on the territory of the Andes in South America. The local communities were using the hunting traps called “mangas” to hunt vicunas. However, these traps were portable (nets mainly) and didn’t remain in its authentic state as the stone-made arans. It makes the territory of Ustyurt Reserve a totally unique cultural and natural heritage site, the mixed landscape of which remained in the outstanding state of conservation and authenticity.

Concerning the natural component of the nomination, there are no directly comparable properties. The World Heritage List contains properties that represent similar arid climatic conditions, such as Lut Desert, for example, but the outstanding universal value of Lut Desert is in the sand and stone formations in a hot desert, while the outstanding universal value of Ustyurt is in the remainders of ancient ocean Tethys, which makes them incomparable.