At the crossroads of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, and Uzbekistan, among high and rugged mountain ranges lies Aksu-Zhabagly Nature Reserve - the oldest nature reserve in Central Asia and a part of UNESCO's World Network of Biospheres and World Heritage List. Established in 1926 for its rich biodiversity, the park is home to many endangered and rare plants and animals, including eight species of snow leopard and even the elusive Turkestan lynx.
It is deep within the park's scenic canyon overlooking the Aksu River and vast expanses of Kazakhstan's rangeland where our team recently met a remarkable woman. As the Head of the Department of Eco-Education and Eco-Tourism at Aksu-Zhabagly Nature Reserve, Elmira Jumanova has a special connection to both the park's rich history and its future.
As our team walked with Elmira admiring the Aksu Canyon and the mountain range in the distance, she pointed to two glaciers in our view and for comparison pulled out a page with photos of these glaciers - one from the 1900s and the second one from the 2000s. The difference was astounding. In the last 100 years, the two glaciers shrunk by more than half. The once lush landscape has turned to arid land as the water supply diminished along with the glacier.
Drylands in Central Asia, including the former Aral Seabed in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, are some of the most rapidly degrading areas in the world. Unprecedented sand and dust storms as well as impacts on forestry and agriculture, are costing Central Asia countries 3-11% of GDP, with the cost of inaction being five times higher. With limited places to graze, livestock is also contributing to land degradation at the boundaries of protected areas, where it enters to find fodder.
In response to the intensifying desertification, the Resilient Landscape Restoration Central Asia project (RESILAND CA+) was launched to catalyze joint action to increase resilience to climate change, restore landscapes, and protect livelihoods. The project focuses, among other aims, on transboundary areas where regulatory frameworks are often most difficult to enforce.
Recognizing that nature knows no boundaries, the governments of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, and Uzbekistan with support from grants and investments under the RESILAND CA+ are aiming to implement strategic, coordinated policies and interventions in the region. The first RESILAND project in Kazakhstan, supported by the Global Environment Facility, is helping strengthen institutional capacity and pilot agroforestry practices, like the planting of apple and pear orchards to restore key degraded productive lands and habitats.
Regional programs in Central Asia are not new. Previous initiatives, like the World Bank's Central Asia Transboundary Biodiversity Project completed in 1999-2006, have helped support new legislation on joint protected areas spurring awareness of the economic benefits that biodiversity and nature-based tourism can bring through parks and reserves. At Aksu Zhabagly, the project supported construction of a visitor center and museum - the first one in Kazakhstan.
Since the visitor center opened in 2004, the park has enjoyed a 50% increase in the number of visitors and now attracts about 6,000 people every year. The construction of the visitor center was also a turning point for neighboring communities, which benefited from the increased flow of nature-minded tourists and bolstered the local economy.
Enhanced biodiversity conservation measures; improved knowledge of the distribution and status of rare, endangered, and endemic species; and the introduction of sustainable grazing and forestry practices, among others, have contributed to a roughly 20% increase in the park's species population since 2004. The reserve's biodiversity has flourished and now includes more than 1,700 species of plants and 1,300 species of animals.
However, there is still much work to be done. Continued efforts and investments are needed to upgrade Aksu-Zhabagly's tourist facilities and observation decks, and to ensure monitoring to prevent cattle from grazing in protected areas.
While ecotourism-related initiatives have helped bring biodiversity into the public focus, landscape degradation at the boundaries of protected and productive landscapes continues to persist. To complement the GEF RESILAND project, Kazakhstan has recently been approved for funding under PROGREEN, a global partnership working to support sustainable and resilient landscapes. As part of the PROGREEN-supported RESILAND project, the country will continue to enhance its government capacity to implement integrated landscape management and to tackle the main drivers of land degradation such as uncontrolled grazing and climate change. The project's critical components are developing a roadmap for further nature-based tourism growth and a long-term strategy for conservation of biodiversity to build climate resilience. These include combining agriculture with forestry management, which is recognized as a climate-smart way to boost agricultural productivity.
Projects like this one are helping to advance an agro-forestry management approach for both conservation and development. Agro-forestry demonstration plots are being set up close to natural reserves to provide space where livestock from adjacent farms can freely graze. They provide multiple benefits, including additional sources of income, increased productivity of biological production in terms of yield and productivity, and improved natural environment for plants and animal habitats.
It is also important to note that demonstration agroforestry plots are planned to be established by individual and family farms, with direct participation of farmers or other local communities that have long-term forest use or land use agreements in the protected zone of the reserve. They include plantations of black saxaul and fodder plants as well as selected crops. These and other innovative agro-forestry practices focused on effective natural resource management will be piloted, tested, and evaluated separately based on cost-benefit calculations and beneficiaries’ feedback, and then scaled up in other projects and government subsidized programs, as well as farms’ self-financed investments.
Together, the GEF and PROGREEN-supported RESILAND projects will support innovative community-centered agroforestry practices and cultivation, production, and storage of climate adaptive seedlings. This will not only help prepare the country, which currently has only 4.7% forest cover, for a changing climate, but will also help meet the commitment made by Kazakhstan's president to plant two billion trees by 2025.
The World Bank stands ready to support Kazakhstan in meeting its climate and biodiversity goals, including the targets set out in the recently adopted Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework. As our team concluded the visit and said goodbye, together with Elmira and her colleagues, we were filled with optimism about the future of Aksu Zhabagly's rich fauna and flora and Kazakhstan's beautiful landscapes and people.