A large, very shallow, alkaline lake situated on a gently rolling plateau at the foot of the Kohe Baba and Kohe Paghman ranges in south-east Afghanistan, c.130 km south of Ghazni, at 2,100 m. The following description is based on observations in the 1970s. The lake's size varied considerably from year to year, being recharged mainly by snow-melt water flow once per year in spring, when it was most extensive (usually c.16 km at the widest point, and up to c.13,000 ha). Summers are very hot and winters very cold: the lake shrank through evaporation during the summer, in some years becoming completely dry by October, but in other years water lasted through the winter, although often freezing apart from a few tiny pools. Extensive mudflats surrounded the lake, extending for 7 km on the east side but only 0.5 km on the west; normally three islands were visible. The lake was fed by a river entering in the north-east and formed by a confluence of the Gardez, Ghazni and Nahara rivers. Extensive semi-desert steppe surrounded the lake and mudflats; characteristic shrubs were Amygdalus, Cousinia, Artemisia and Tamarix. Carex predominated in a small marsh at the river mouth in the north-east corner, but otherwise there was little plant life in the lake proper or on the mudflats, apart from Ruppia. There were no fish in the lake. There were 2,500 people in 15 villages within 10 km of the lake area, concentrated 8 km to the north-east, as well as c.200-300 semi-nomadic people living in the area, with traditional grazing rights for their livestock on the plains. Following a survey in November 1993, the following changes are apparent. Average water levels are higher than in past years, and the water is fresher, due apparently to much water being released from the Band-i-Sardeh dam upstream by local Mujahideen commanders. Fish now occur in the lake. Most villagers left as refugees during the war, but the semi-nomadic people remained. The site is important archaeologically, having several early dwelling mounds and accompanying artefacts. Roads to the area are usually not passable in winter.
A very important wetland for migrating waterfowl and Grus leucogeranus in particular, as well as for breeding Phoenicopterus ruber. The whole of the tiny, remaining 'central' of the three known breeding populations of G. leucogeranus depends on the site as a key 're-fuelling' area whilst on spring migration en route between the Ganges plain in India and Siberia; the species almost certainly uses the site on autumn passage in some years as well, since there is a record of 3 birds in December 1970, although a one-month survey in November 1993 did not locate the species. Since at least the late 1960s, numbers have been declining steadily (e.g. max. 76 at Ab-i-Istada in March 1970, compared to only 5 in India in winter 1992/3), with uncontrolled crane-hunting in Pakistan and Afghanistan being the prime suspect for the decline. P. ruber breeds on the islands: 2,900-9,000 birds were present in the three springs of 1969, 1970 and 1974 (an average of c.5,700 birds) but the colony fluctuates markedly in size and in many years no breeding takes place; when conditions are unsuitable the birds shift to Dashte Nawar (see site 013), where breeding was more frequent than at Ab-i-Istada during 1966-1975. Other breeding species include Tadorna tadorna (100 pairs), Recurvirostra avosetta, Charadrius alexandrinus, C. leschenaultii and Larus genei (100+ birds, June). Large numbers of waterfowl occur on spring passage (when water levels are highest), and several thousand ducks can be present in winter in years of high spring-melt water flow and if the lake does not freeze over; other winter counts include Recurvirostra avosetta (285). Over 60 bird species have been recorded. The site was listed as a wetland of international importance by Carp (1980).
Non-bird biodiversity: None known to BirdLife International.
Pressure/threats to key biodiversity
Game guards were employed during the summer from 1974 to 1979. A management plan was prepared in 1977, and the area was approved as a Wildlife Sanctuary by the Head of State in 1977. Damming and water extraction from feeder rivers (especially the Ghazni and Gardez) for irrigation projects during the 1980s no doubt led to lower-than-average water levels and possibly to an increase in salinity; theoretically, this may have reduced or eliminated the sedge tubers on which Grus leucogeranus depends for food, and will also have reduced the likelihood of the site providing an autumn migration staging post for this species. The higher-than-average water levels observed in November 1993 had submerged at least two of the three islands and Phoenicopterus ruber did not breed in that year. Hunting of waterfowl in 1993 is occurring only at a low, subsistence level but may still pose a significant threat for Grus leucogeranus; local people are not aware of the species or its endangered status. Grazing pressure is heavy in places. During the 1980s the Air Force occasionally used the lake for bombing practise. The site was proposed as a National Park in 1981.
Habitat and land use
BirdLife International (2020) Important Bird Areas factsheet: Ab-i-Istada. Downloaded from
http://www.birdlife.org on 29/10/2020.