Arid Lands Newsletter--link to home pageNo. 43, Spring/Summer 1998
Ecotourism in Drylands

The potential for ecotourism in Uzbekistan

by Eric Sievers

"Nature-oriented tourism is not new in Uzbekistan. However, if ecotourism is defined as tourism structured to facilitate the objectives of conservation and/or sustainable development, then there is no history of ecotourism in Uzbekistan."


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Situated in the heart of Central Asia, the Republic of Uzbekistan boasts a varied, largely arid terrain and rich biodiversity. This substantial natural capital, further enhanced by the strong park system initiated during Soviet Union days, could well become the solid basis for development of ecotourism projects that would strengthen local economies, improve the well-being of local citizens, and help protect Uzbekistan's natural resources. Unfortunately, since Uzbekistan's independence from the former USSR in 1991, the difficulties and struggles of the transition period have, at least to date, led to development of a far different picture with regard to ecotourism in Uzbekistan.

Although this article takes Uzbekistan as a case study, its conclusions and the trends that it describes can be safely extrapolated to the other Central Asian republics (Kazakstan, Kyrgzystan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan). Since independence, all of these new countries have been subject to, and have subjected themselves to, substantial degradation of their natural wealth in biodiversity, national parks, and ecosystem integrity.

Scientists count approximately 40 mammal, 430 bird, 60 reptile, 68 tree, 320 shrub, over 3000 grass, and 74 fish species in Uzbekistan (Footnote 1). Adding the country's well-developed park infrastructure and dramatic intersections of river, mountain, and desert ecosystems, Uzbekistan's potential for ecotourism is indeed remarkable. However, precedents evidencing self-serving or even illegal activity argue for caution in ecotourism's development in Uzbekistan. Specifically, sport hunters from around the world are being allowed to hunt Uzbekistan's rare animals; and state agencies have no requirements to be, nor any historic tradition of being, financially or programatically accountable to the public.


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Over the past 100 years, species such as Caspian tiger (Panthera tigris virgata) and Near Eastern leopard (Panthera pardus ciscaucasica) have already disappeared from Uzbekistan. Nevertheless, the still-existing populations of snow leopard (Felis uncia), lynx (Lynx lynx isabellinus), several other species of wild cats (Felis caracal, Felis margarita thinobius, Felus chaus oxiana, Felis manul), Tien-Shan bear (Ursos arctos), bustard (Chlamydotis undulata), djeiran (Gasella subgutturosa), various raptors, Bukhara mouflon (Ovis orientalis bocharensis), and endemic species of groundhog, deer, and pheasant, make Uzbekistan a true showcase for biodiversity. In addition to vertebrates, Uzbekistan boasts monitors, an array of scorpions and venomous snakes, and a tremendous variety of butterflies. Despite its much smaller size, Uzbekistan boasts nearly as much biodiversity as the entire Russian Federation (Footnote 2).

Preserved lands

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Bequeathed a considerable portion of the Soviet Union's progressive system of preserved lands, Uzbekistan's spectacular environmental resources are organized into parks that readily lend themselves to tourism. Under the Soviet system, there were several categories of preserved lands. In a simplified overview, a zapovednik was a permanent reserve created with the goal of preserving a specific species or ecosystem. While open to scientific researchers with special permission, it was not open to the general public for recreation and was usually under strict conservation management. A zakaznik, a temporary and sometimes seasonal game reserve, was created on critical migratory stopovers in the former case and to increase quantities of game animals in the latter case. Zakazniki were not established for recreation and had varying and often contradictory management programs. A third type of park, natural monuments, were usually small reserves dedicated to unusual and/or historically significant features of the landscape. Also, not long before the disassembly of the USSR, a small number of Western-style national parks were formed.

In 1982, Uzbekistan showcased thirteen zapovedniki with a combined area of 2700 km2. At that time, five additional reserves were being planned. In the past 10 years, the zapovednik system has greatly contracted and now consists of only 10 reserves. In addition to the Djeiran EcoCenter, in Uzbekistan in 1982 there were seven zakazniki with a total area of almost 2000 km2. Since 1992, the area, number, and actual condition of preserved lands in Uzbekistan has deteriorated. In all the protected lands of Uzbekistan, nature protection laws are regularly violated through grazing and poaching; firewood and hay collection also damage the environment. As reserves have lost almost all their funding, ecotourism could be the best hope to keep these ecologically critical areas preserved. The income from properly managed ecotourism projects could not only help fund operation and maintenance of the reserves themselves; it could also help prevent reserve-damaging economic activities like poaching or firewood collection by making such activities less crucial for local populations' survival.

Furthermore, even in this most populous of Central Asian countries, in the areas outside the park system, there are still vast areas of virtually untouched nature. These areas increase Uzbekistan's tourism potential, although the remote mountain areas can be hazardous to travelers.

Ecotourism: Potential vs. current reality

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Nature-oriented tourism is not new in Uzbekistan. However, if ecotourism is defined as tourism structured to facilitate the objectives of conservation and/or sustainable development, then there is no history of ecotourism in Uzbekistan. Hard currency hunts for foreign tourists, organized by influential private citizens and government officials, including State Nature Protection Committee and State Forest Committee employees, illustrate the tone of nature tourism in Uzbekistan today. These activities furthermore coincide with measures compromising scientific researchers working within the preserved lands system of Uzbekistan. By early 1994, almost all researchers had been excluded from the reserves, effectively ending the conservation mission of Uzbekistan's protected lands system.

Typical of the agendas offered through these hard-currency hunt programs is the following translated excerpt from a Tashkent-based firm:

"One can hunt Severtsov's urial, mountain ibex, Tajik markhor, and bear (with advance order). . . The hunt will last until trophies are bagged (5-7 days). 95-100% chance of bagging trophies."

These are, for the most part, CITES Appendix II animals, and Severtsov's urial (Ovis orientalis severtzovi) is so endangered that it may not legally be brought into the United States under current US Fish & Wildlife Service rules. Nor is the hunting confined to mammals: the last several years have seen a dramatic rise in falcon hunting on bustard in Uzbekistan. In fact, The Djeiran EcoCenter has been cleared of researchers and now functions as a center for this activity.


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International organizations should both support and be wary of ecotourism efforts in Uzbekistan. Uzbekistan's state agencies are not automatically accountable and their expertise may be limited. Truly independent NGOs offer international organizations a medium through which to structure successful ecotourism projects. Currently, there are only a handful of truly independent NGOs in Uzbekistan; while they face severe political, legal, and economic barriers, they are also fiercely dedicated to promoting sustainable development within their country.

Moreover, the former scientific researchers of Uzbekistan's zapovedniki are unquestionably the country's leading naturalists and guides, and a remarkable number of them also speak English or German. Every effort should thus be made to give these scientific naturalists, as well as true grassroots NGOs, a strong voice in the development of ecotourism in Uzbekistan.

The enthusiasm of and potential for such local involvement is amply demonstrated by the following example. In January, 1995, the NGO Ekolog announced a new project in Djizak it calls, "The local model of sustainable development for Central Asia." The following excerpt, reprinted verbatim from Ekolog's descriptive materials, shows that this project includes many elements consistent with ecotourism's aims to promote local sustainability, preserve the environment, and educate the public. The Djizak project endeavors to:

"provide local experiment of sustaineble development in collaboration with local administration. On the Farish district territory (the total square about [10,000 km]) you can see many different landscapes typical for Central Asia- mountains (the highest point- Khayatbashi, 2165 m), different types of deserts and semydeserts (stone, sand and clay), big lakes (native and artificial). There are Nuratau State Nature Reserve (zapovednik) and Arnasaj State Nature Refuge (zakaznik). Unfortunately, there are conflicts between preserved natural territories and local population consist of tadjics, uzbeks and kazakhs in general. Each of them has own traditional kind of nature using. The same time in this territory we can see the components of ecological disaster typical for all Central Asia."

Clearly, in the interests of local accountability, sustainable development and the environment, the expedient way to develop ecotourism in Uzbekistan would be to involve NGOs such as Ekolog which further objectives similar to ecotourism's.

Zapovedniki in Uzbekistan

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Badai-Tugai (60 km2) was formed in 1971 in the Karakalpak Autonomous Region on a plain of the Amudarya River. The tugai (riparian) ecosystem accommodates jackal, steppe cat, fox, and reintroduced Bukharan deer. The reserve is compromised by the severe condition of the Amudarya and its proximity to the Aral Sea.

Chatkalsky (352 km2) was a zakaznik from 1947-51 and in 1993 became a Biosphere Reserve. Near Tashkent, its alpine subalpine ecosystems accommodate fox, steppe cat, wolf, snow leopard, and Tien-Shan bear. The reserve is compromised by livestock grazing and poaching. It is also the center of the Ugam-Chatkalsky National Park.

Gissarcky (approximately 750 km2) is the synthesis of two earlier zapovedniki merged in the mid-seventies and is located in Kashkadaryo Region. Its alpine and juniper forests accommodate lynx, snow leopard, and various raptor species. The reserve recently lost 70 km2 to a collective farm. It contains Peak Boboitmas (4349 meters), the Cave of Tamerlane, and the country's largest glacier, Severtsov. It is the largest zapovednik in Uzbekistan.

Kitabsky (54 km2) was formed in 1979 as a geologic zapovednik in the Kashkadayo Region. Its alpine environment accommodates bear. The reserve has possibly the most extensive infrastructure in all of Central Asia.

Kizylkumsky (101 km2) was formed in 1971 on a network of Amudarya islands in the Khorezm and Bukhara Regions. The reserve accommodates a variety of wild cats, wolf, fox, wild boar, reintroduced Bukharan deer, and desert monitor. The zapovednik's territory is disputed between Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. It originally consisted of 3985 ha, but was expanded in 1976 and 1981.

Nuratinsky (approximately 200 km2) was formed in 1975 in Djizak Region in a mountain/savanna ecosystem characteristic because of its nut tree forest. The reserve accommodates wolf, Severtsov's urial, wild boar, and several species of raptors. In 1991, Nuratinsky lost 4000 ha to logging and is presently compromised by a village, Madjerum, situated in its core. The zapovednik contains petroglyphs and the highest point in the Nuratau Mountains, Khayatbashy (2000+ meters).

Surkhansky (265 km2) has been through several incarnations since 1960 in the Surkhardaryo Region on the Afghanistan border in an Amu Darya tugai ecosystem. Tiger was extirpated only forty years ago and the zapovednik currently accommodates several wild cat species, wolf, fox, jackal, and Bukharan deer. To an unknown degree, Surkhansky was damaged by the Afghan War. In 1988, during the Afghan War, an Uzbek contingent from Afghanistan occupied the island. They were finally driven out by a mujaheeden group from Afghanistan. A famous Islamic prophet is buried on the island and the location is sacred in the Moslem world. Since the war, no scientific researchers have been allowed on the island.

Zaaminsky (156 km2) bordering Tajikistan in the Djizak Region, has been through many incarnations since the mid-1920s. Its alpine juniper forests accommodate wolf, fox, bear, lynx, snow leopard, and several species of raptors. Zaaminsky is the oldest zapovednik in Uzbekistan and is bordered by Zaaminsky People's Park.

Zeravshansky (24 km2) was formed in 1975 in Samarkand Region. Its tugai ecosystem accommodates jackal and Zeravshansky pheasant, an endemic species.

Zakazniki in Uzbekistan

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Abdusamatsky (13 km2) was formed in 1974 in Fergana Region to preserve pheasant and tugai. Abdusamatsky was formerly a zapovednik with an area of 22 km2.

Akbulaksky (352 km2) is a buffer zone for Chatkalsky Zapovednik.

Arnasaisky (630 km2) was also once a zapovednik. In Djizak Region, its mission is the preservation of Lake Tuzkan.

Sangardaksky (38 km2) is located in Surkhandaryo Region at the headwaters of the Sangardak River.

Djeiran EcoCenter (51 km2) was formed in 1977 to breed endangered djeiran (Gasella subgutturosa) and MacQueen's bustard (Chlamydotis undulata). Located in Bukhara Region in a sand and clay desert, this unique institution is classified here as a zakaznik only because of recent events. Its scientific staff has been evicted and it is now a base for hard currency hunt tourism.

National Parks in Uzbekistan

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Ugam Chatkalsky is situated close to Tashkent and includes the Chatkalsky Zapovednik. It is compromised by over 150 populated areas within its borders.

Zaaminsky People's Park (315 km2) is located in Djizak Region adjoining Zaaminsky Zapovednik.


1. Sievers, E., O. Tsaruk, and A. Zatoka. National parks, snow leopards, and poppy plantations: The development and degradation of Central Asia's preserved lands. Part I in Central Asia Monitor 2:23-30 and Part II in Central Asia Monitor 3:17-26 (1995). "The angiosperm flora of the Central Asian region includes 7,000 species; the fauna includes more than 900 species of vertebrate animals of which there are 172 species of mammals, 540 species of birds, 106 species of reptiles, 14 species of amphibians, and ca. 150 species of fish. More than 20,000 species of invertebrates are described from the region, which is only a portion of the actual fauna." Biodiversity conservation in Central Asia. World Wildlife Fund, Moscow, 1997.
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2. Sokolov, V. and Ye. Syroyechkovskii. Zapovedniki Srednei Azii i Kazakhstana. Moscow: Mysl' 1990.
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Author Information

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Eric Sievers is Executive Director of Law and Environment Eurasia Partnership, a nonprofit organization working in partnership with Central Asian NGOs for the sustainable development of Central Asia. He can be reached as follows:

219 North Avenue
Weston, MA 02193
Tel: +1 (617)497-6558
LEEP web site:

LEEP's Uzbekistan office can be reached as follows:

Tel: +7 (3711) 91-39-35

Additional web resources

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The Perry Castañeda Library at the University of Texas-Austin maintains an extensive collection of (large!) online maps including some pertinent to Uzbekistan:
Political Map of Uzbekistan
This map shows Uzbekistan's location within Asia as well as details of the country itself. File size is 224K, and image is 992x1058 pixels.
Political Map of Central Asia
This 1995 map shows the political boundaries of the Central Asian republics of Kazakstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan. File size 237K, image size 1324x1044 pixels.

Ecostan News
This monthly newsletter, published by LEEP, reports on ecological and political news from the Central Asian countries of Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Ecostan News has published several articles concerning biodiversity and hunting-related issues in Central Asia.

Republic of Uzbekistan
Developed and maintained by the Embassy of the Republic of Uzbekistan in Washington, D.C., this site provides extensive information on Uzbekistan, including travel and tourism.

Central Eurasia Project: Uzbekistan Resource Page
The Central Eurasia Project web site is produced by the Soros Foundation, a philanthropical organization that carries out many activities in Central Asia as a whole. The address above leads to the site's materials on Uzbekistan.

Interactive Central Asia Resource Project (ICARP): Uzbekistan
The ICARP web site, created in 1995 by Anthony Bichel and Rebecca Bichel, is dedicated to the world wide creation, publication and distribution of information on Central Asia. The address given above leads to the site's materials on Uzbekistan.

Sacred Earth Network - Uzbekistan
Among other things, the Sacred Earth Network maintains a database of Eurasian environmental organizations. This site uses frames, so from the menu, choose "SEN's Eurasian Environmental E-mail Directory;" then enter "Uzbekistan" in their extensive search menu to see their listing of Uzbeki environmental organizations.

Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES)
The official CITES web site provides a great deal of information including the text of the Convention, other official documents arising from the Convention, and a CITES-listed species database. The information is available in English, French or Spanish.

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