In autumn on one lake in central Kazakhstan, one-third of the global population of the white-headed duck (Oxyura leucocephala) gather.
Standing at the crossroads of several migration routes, Central Asia is home to tens of millions of migratory birds and as many as 530 bird species.
The white-headed duck is one of 20 species that is now considered threatened by extinction.
But in an effort to protect such globally important species and their habitats, international and local environmentalists have united their forces to produce Important Bird Area (IBA) directories for Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan.
Central Asia's natural heritage has been undermined by the economic situation in the region. Lack of resources has greatly affected research and monitoring work carried out during the Soviet era. Filling In The Gaps
Michael Brombacher of the British environmental charity Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), the coordinator of the project, says "there is already quite a good network of protected areas in Central Asia, which is inherited from Soviet times."
"But there are gaps because there's an important biodiversity outside of this network And what we did with these books [is that] we used an internationally approved method to really have a consistent approach to tell the governments where are the gaps in their network," Brombacher says.
The IBA books for Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan were published in September 2008. Brombacher says the data provided by the Turkmen government already have been analyzed and the country's IBA book is expected to be published in May or June this year.
The three publications describe 219 sites covering over 20 million hectares -- an area equivalent to the land surface of Britain.
They include 121 sites in Kazakhstan, 50 in Turkmenistan, and 48 in Uzbekistan, only about 40 percent of which are under some form of protection.
Site accounts include information on birds and biodiversity, threats and conservation actions, as well as conservation management recommendations in all ecosystems -- but mainly wetlands.
The establishment of the NGO was a milestone not only for nature conservation, but also for the resulting increase in citizens' involvement and awareness in environmental issues
The project focused on Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan because of their shared habitat structure and biodiversity. Ultimately, information on mountainous Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan will be incorporated into an IBA inventory for the whole Central Asia region.
The project has received 720,000 euros ($950,150) in funding from British and German organizations (Darwin Initiative, Centrum fur Internationale Migration und Entwicklung, and the RSPB).
Brombacher says the Kazakh, Uzbek, and Turkmen governments have been "very supportive and open" to the project, providing mostly logistical support and permissions to visit the natural sites.
In Tashkent, Roman Kashkarov, the IBA project coordinator from Uzbekistan, says governmental conservation authorities recognize IBAs as tools to improve the current system of protected areas.
"From the beginning, the IBA program was supported by the State Committee for Nature Protection of Uzbekistan. Practically all project actions were supported by this Committee [and] its officers took part in many of our actions," Kashkarov says.
"This let us introduce international nature protective experience very efficiently. The IBA book was appreciated at its true value and used by State Committee’s services."
Kashkarov also says compiling the IBA books also brought together ornithologists and nongovernmental organizations that were scattered across the three countries.
Over three years since the project started in 2005, the data were collected and analyzed, and the IBA boundaries were digitized. Brombacher says the lack of young researchers also forced the project to invest in capacity building.
"After the collapse of the Soviet Union, not many people really joined or staged in research. In order to do this work we had to invest in training researchers. This was not originally planned. Now that the books are there, the next step is conservation, monitoring, education, [and] information,” Brombacher says.
More than 200 university students, protected-area staff, hunters, fisherman, and other conservation volunteers in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are being formed into national networks of IBA caretakers, such as student bird clubs. Grassroots Movement
Kashkarov's Uzbekistan Society for the Protection of Birds (UzSPB) emerged from the IBA project team in 2007.
He says the establishment of the nongovernmental organization was a milestone not only for nature conservation, but also for the resulting increase in citizens' involvement and awareness in environmental issues:
"UzSPB members are 132. More than half of members are [non-scientists] who like birds. This year we opened affiliated societies in Karakalpakstan, Bukhara, and Samarkand regions. UzSPB [also] does much for raising the ecological literacy level of the residential population and land users. There are annual information campaigns, radio and TV reports, and publications."
With the implementation of the IBA project in Kazakhstan, Brombacher says the country's project partner, the nongovernmental Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity in Kazakhstan (ACBK), has grown into a "very professional" conservation organization with almost 30 staff and offices in Astana and Almaty.
In Turkmenistan, however, the project partner remains the Ministry of Nature Protection. Brombacher says clubs in Ashgabat and Turkmenabad are still being developed and not yet fully running.