Stretching from the Himalayas to the Russian steppes, from the Caspian Sea to the highlands of Tibet, Central Asia is a region of vast contrasts in landscape and biological diversity. But observers warn that this diversity is under increasing threat.
Central Asia is home to some 7,000 species of flora, 900 species of vertebrates, and 20,000 species of invertebrates, many of which cannot be found anywhere else in the world.
Local and international observers warn, however, that the populations of many animal species in the region is decreasing, bringing some of them to the edge of extinction. Their natural habitats are also shrinking.
Olga Pereladova, the Moscow-based manager of the Central Asia program of the World Wildlife Fund, or WWF, said: "Everywhere in the region we have a huge diversity. In all the countries, there are serious threats."
During the Soviet period, nature reserves and national parks were created to protect a broad range of ecosystems in the five Central Asian republics. But unwise agricultural development, combined with rapid population growth, led to the extinction of some species of plants and animals, such as the Asian cheetah in the 1970s.
The situation worsened following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The financial mechanisms that supported the protected areas collapsed, while the economic decline of the region pushed environmental protection down the list of priorities. "The needs of economical development are the first priority for the countries and for the local populations who don't realize the necessity to conserve biodiversity. These everyday needs put aside the problems of biodiversity conservation. And it's very clear that some areas are key areas both for the biodiversity and for agricultural development, such as basins, river valleys, which are oases with the best soil and where the soils can be watered. So the ecosystems are in concurrence with the development of agriculture," Pereladova said.
Sergei Kuratov is the head of Green Salvation, a nongovernmental organization whose goal is to improve the socio-ecological conditions in Kazakhstan's Almaty region.
He agreed with Pereladova, telling RFE/RL that the illegal exploitation of biological resources, such as the felling of trees for fuel, for handicrafts, or for sale to industries, as well as the capture of endangered species, is often the only way for some rural communities to survive. "There is a very famous scandal in Kazakhstan, which is still continuing. A lot of falcons -- about 1,000 or maybe more -- were [exported] to [Arab] countries during the last five years, and local people are trying to catch them and to sell [them] to very rich representatives from [Arab] countries," Kuratov said.
The illegal capture of birds of prey is also of great concern in neighboring Kyrgyzstan.
Valentina Toropova, head of the laboratory of zoology at the Kyrgyz National Academy of Sciences in Bishkek, accuses the state body responsible for the administration of forests of allowing the capture and export of birds of prey such as falcons. "If earlier the norms of catching the birds and hunting were discussed with [scientists], we are now pushed aside and have no influence in this process. That is why we have sent a letter to the forest agency, asking not to set the hunting period without consulting scientists, and more importantly, not to give permission to catch birds that are [under the threat of extinction]," Toropova said.
Musa Kutchukov, deputy head of Kyrgyzstan's State Forest Agency, denied these charges, maintaining that the agency forbids the export of birds of prey and cooperates closely with scientists.
Kuratov said the development of the hydrocarbon industry in the Caspian basin and the lack of enforcement of existing environmental legislation are the two main factors responsible for the degradation of biodiversity in Kazakhstan.
Kuratov said many heads of local and regional authorities consider the country's biological resources as their own property.
"We have a good example from Ile-Alatau National Park, which is situated [near] Almaty, [on] how local authorities of Almaty city just ignore the administration of this national park, ignore the Ministry of Ecology, [by] using biological resources of this national park," Kuratov said.
The World Wildlife Fund's Pereladova noted that Central Asian governments are paying more attention to the conservation of the region's biodiversity. "There was a ban on logging, for example, in Kazakhstan, which is a very serious step to protect the forest, [and] to prevent the illegal trade of wood. [The] government of Turkmenistan has supported all villages with free-of-charge gas. The forest is also protected from illegal cutting. In Tajikistan, they have established a new national park with the area of 12 percent of the whole country [where] they are [supposed] to develop a very sustainable way of natural-resources use," Pereladova said.
Regional governments are also cooperating in the fight to protect endangered species. Pereladova noted that, with the assistance of the UN Environmental Program, a regional plan for sustainable development has been created that includes the issue of biodiversity conservation.
Several international ecological organizations are active in the region in helping to preserve Central Asian biodiversity. Officials from the Global Environment Facility hope to start a project early next year to protect wild apple trees in southeastern Kazakhstan.
The WWF is implementing programs to preserve three animal species from extinction: the Bukharan deer in Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan; the leopard in Turkmenistan; and the kulan, a relative of the horse, also in Turkmenistan.
According to Pereladova, all three are success stories due to the efficient interaction between WWF staff, governments, local authorities, and nongovernmental organizations. For example, she said there are now more than 600 Bukharan deer in Central Asia, compared with 400 three years ago.
Pereladova said education is fundamental in the struggle for biodiversity conservation. "Now it is very important to start ecological education for the children and training for decision makers, because these ideas of nature conservation need to be brought into the mentality of people, and it is important that they understand that this nature-conservation activity is not taking nature from them but is saving nature for them and for future generations," Pereladova said.
By Antoine Blua, RFE/RL, December 17, 2002