Story by Geoff Welch, International Management Plans Adviser
Taldykol and the Astana skyline, September 2014 (Matt Self, RSPB)
They say that the best things in life are worth waiting for and that definitely applies to ACBK’s (BirdLife Kazakhstan) and RSPB’s plans for creating Kazakhstan’s and Central Asia’s, first ‘City Nature Reserve’ at Taldykol lakes on the outskirts of Astana, Kazakhstan’s new and thriving capital.
In 2006, I accompanied a group of Kazakhs on a study visit to the UK to look at nature reserve management visiting Minsmere, Rye House Marsh and the London Wetland Centre. On our return to Kazakhstan, we were driving past Taldykol and I said, slightly tongue in cheek "remember what we saw in the UK? You could have something like that here in Astana." 12 years later, the idea appears to be coming to fruition!
The Taldykol lake system ('Taldykol' means willow-lined lake) is a 13,221 ha complex of open water, reedbed, mixed swamp, seasonally wet grassland, steppe and plantation on the western fringes of Astana. For many years, the lake has been used as a reservoir for treated water from the water treatment works on the north-west side of the city but this is in the process of being decommissioned and replaced with a new plant on the north-east side of the city. Extensive reclamation works have been carried out this summer and in October 2017, the main lake had been reduced to approximately 475 ha – tiny by Kazakh standards but vast compared with many wetlands in the UK! most of the central and Msouthern parts of the wetland were dry. The steppe and plantations appear to have been unaffected by these works.
The wetland and steppe of Taldykol are a mini version of the vast areas of steppe and wetlands that dominate northern Kazakhstan. Steppe is one of the least protected habitats on the planet and Kazakhstan plays a unique role in protecting this global resource. The Kazakh steppes are the world stronghold for the critically endangered sociable lapwing and saiga antelope, are home to the charismatic black lark, have the most northerly breeding colony of greater flamingoes in the world and support millions of waterbirds using the Central Asia Flyway on their spring and autumn migrations. However, the sheer size of Kazakhstan makes most of this inaccessible to the majority of the Kazakh population - Taldykol would give people a ‘taste’ of this incredible richness.
Whilst it will be impossible to show people sociable lapwings, black larks and flamingos, Taldykol supports large numbers of ducks and waders on migration and has many breeding species including mute and whooper swans, marsh harriers, lapwings and bluethroats. Dalmatian pelicans are regular in small numbers and common cranes and geese can regularly be seen flying over in autumn. During the breeding season, the steppe and woodland are home to a colony of red-footed falcons, small numbers of pallid and Montagu’s harriers and songbirds such as azure tit and stonechat.
The Kazakh government are keen to demonstrate a commitment to sustainable and green development despite the extraordinary rate of growth of the capital. It has already introduced a range of urban eco-projects such as greenways, a bike-hire scheme and new areas of parkland. Therefore, when the city’s Master Development Plan was published and identified Taldykol as a green space, ACBK and RSPB saw this as an opportunity to lobby the Astana authorities to designate part of the site as a ‘City Nature Reserve’. The idea is to restore high value wetland and steppe habitats and provide a focus for interpretation and education through high-quality visitor infrastructure. Initial support has already been gained from key people in the Kazakh Parliament and after promoting the idea at the World Expo in Astana this summer the UK Embassy is also behind the idea. Drawing on its years of reserve management, the RSPB is in the process of developing detailed project briefs for carrying out the vital hydrological and biodiversity studies required for assessing the feasibility of the project and for planning the layout of visitor facilities.
Although much reduced in size, Taldykol stills presents an unrivalled opportunity to introduce the residents of, and visitors to, Astana to the natural wonders of Kazakhstan.
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