Ensuring Long-Term Conservation of the Altai-Sayan Ecoregion

Geographical location:

Europe/Middle-East > Eastern Europe > Russian Federation

Teletskoye Lake in the Altaisky Nature Reserve (Zapovednik). Central Altai, Siberia, Russia.
© WWF-Canon / Hartmut JUNGIUS

Summary

The Altai-Sayan Mountain Ecoregion is one of the most valuable of the global ecoregions. Crystal clear springs are combined with stunning mountains, coniferous forests and vast steppes. Situated in the centre of Asia, it covers an area of 1,065,000 km2 and stretches across parts of Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan and China.

Altai-Sayan is still a relatively intact area, but it faces growing threats such as poaching and illegal trade of rare and endangered species, mining, deforestation, commercial logging, overgrazing and uncontrolled tourism.

To address these issues, WWF Russia aims to implement an ecological network of protected areas (Econet) and to develop a monitoring and conservation system (MCS) for 2 key species: the snow leopard and the Altai argali sheep.

Background

The globally significant biodiversity values of the Altai-Sayan ecoregion were confirmed in 1998 when 5 natural areas in the Altai Republic were designated as a World Heritage Site. In 2003, Uvs-Nuur, in the Tyva Republic was also listed as a World Heritage Site.

As a transition zone between Siberian boreal forests and central Asian deserts the ecoregion maintains a unique biodiversity. There are 680 animal species found here, including endangered species such as the snow leopard and the argali sheep and 3,726 species of vascular plants, of which 700 are either rare or threatened, and 317 are endemic.

The Altai-Sayan mountain system contains the world's largest unbroken stretches of Siberian cedar (Pinus sibirica) and gives life to 2 of the world's 10 largest rivers - Ob and Yenisey. Water quality and run-off of the rivers over a territory equal to the size of Europe depend on the ‘health’ of the Altai-Sayan region, which is crucial for freshwater ecosystems far beyond the area.

Poaching and the illegal trade of rare and endangered species are the major regional and transboundary threats. It is estimated that 70% of the endangered species trade to Europe from Asia now passes through Central Asia. This results in the rapid decrease of rare species' populations and poses a serious threat of genetic isolation and ultimately population viability. For example, it is estimated that 15 to 20 snow leopards are illegally killed each year.

Overuse of natural resources also poses a serious threat to biodiversity. Economic necessity has forced many local people to turn to poaching and collection of non-timber forest products (NTFP) as both a means of subsistence and financial reward. Weak management and control systems mean that this growing threat is left unchecked.

Mining has increased dramatically - at an annual rate of over 20% - in the past few years. The use of traditional domestic technology, including banned mercury, has resulted in the poisoning of freshwater streams by hundreds of small-scale gold mines.

Deforestation due to forest fires present a serious and increasing threat to biodiversity with the number of fires averaging over 1,100 annually for the past 5 years.

Commercial logging is not currently a significant threat in the area as operations are mostly confined to the Northern part of the ecoregion. Nevertheless, these limited operations have already led to habitat degradation and fragmentation.

A further rapidly growing problem is uncontrolled tourism. The recreational value of the Altai-Sayan has recently been rediscovered by many Russian tourists. The number of visitors during the short summer period increased dramatically in the last 3 years. For example, in the Altai Republic in 2002 it amounted to 450,000 people, more than double the whole population of the Republic.

Objectives

- Establish an ecological network of protected areas (Econet).
- Develop, implement and ensure conservation of rare species.
- Explore the options for, and demonstrate the potential of, sustainable development.
- Promote recognition of the Altai-Sayan as an ecoregion of global ecological value.
- Ensure long-term capacity for the follow-up and sustainability of results.

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