Anzali Mordab complex

Year of compilation: 1994

Site description
The Anzali Mordab lies in the western part of the broad deltaic plains around the city of Rasht in the south-west Caspian region; the town of Bandar Anzali is situated at the mouth of the main Mordab lagoon. The site, which includes Siahkesheem Marsh (37°24'N 49°22'E, 6,700 ha), comprises a large, shallow, eutrophic, freshwater lagoon, fed by several rivers rising in the Alborz Mountains to the south, and separated from the Caspian Sea by a sandy barrier, c.1 km wide, with open grassland, Punica scrub and sand-dune vegetation. Mid-way along its length the lagoon empties into the Caspian through a narrow channel straddled by the busy fishing port of Anzali Mordab. Much of the centre and east of the Mordab supports vast stands of Phragmites (up to 6 m high) while the western part is mainly open water. The partially enclosed basin of the Rud-e-Esfand (Siahkesheem Marsh) in the south-west is almost entirely overgrown with dense reedbeds. The permanent wetland area is surrounded by a broad belt of flood meadows and ab-bandans (shallow impoundments which retain water for summer use in irrigation). These largely seasonal wetlands are bordered by arable land to west, south and east. Selke Ab-bandan (37°24'N 49°29'E, 360 ha) is situated on the southern edge of the main Mordab, and comprises 360 ha of shallow freshwater marsh and flood meadows with tall reedbeds to the north and arable land to the south. The wetland is surrounded by a low embankment and was originally created as a water storage pond and duck-hunting area. Other similar shallow marshes along the southern edge of the Mordab and around its eastern end continue to be maintained as private duck-hunting reserves. Open-water areas support extensive beds of the water lily Nelumbium maciferum and a very rich growth of other floating and submerged vegetation including Lemna, Potamogeton, Hydrilla, Myriophyllum and Ceratophyllum. The marshes and flood meadows to the south support similar vegetation with the addition of Trapa natans, Juncus and Carex. The Mordab is a very important spawning and nursery area for economically important species in the Caspian Sea fishery and also supports a major local fishery. Duck-hunting is an important activity in winter, including both sport hunting and market hunting for sale in local markets and export to Tehran. Many of the ab-bandans surrounding the Mordab are managed as duck-hunting areas in winter. The duck hunters employ a traditional dazzling and hand-netting technique. Elsewhere in the Mordab, hunting is by shotgun. The protected areas are in the public domain.

Key biodiversity
See box for key species. The Anzali Mordab and its satellite wetlands such as Siahkesheem Marsh and Selke Ab-bandan are extremely important for a wide variety of breeding, passage and wintering waterfowl. The wetlands support a very large breeding colony of Chlidonias hybridus, small colonies of six species of herons and egrets, up to 25 pairs of Circus aeruginosus and (at least formerly -- see below) a large resident population of Porphyrio porphyrio. They also support huge wintering concentrations of ducks, geese, swans and coots. The wetland is the most important wintering area in Iran for Phalacrocorax pygmeus (see box), and one of the most important sites for wintering Haliaeetus albicilla. At least 144 species have been recorded in Siahkesheem Protected Area and at least 157 species in Selke Wildlife Refuge, including Jynx torquilla (fairly common passage migrant).

Due to great hunting pressure the number of waterfowl wintering in Anzali Mordab in recent years has been much lower than in the 1970s, when the total count of ducks and Fulica atra usually exceeded 200,000. The great majority of waterfowl are now confined to the well protected Selke Wildlife Refuge, Siahkesheem Marsh and a chain of private duck-netting marshes along the south side of the Mordab.

Selke Wildlife Refuge continues to support large numbers of birds, but there is evidence of a change in species composition, with more diving ducks and F. atra and fewer dabbling ducks and geese than in the 1970s. This is undoubtedly a result of the higher water levels in the Refuge caused by the rise in level of the Caspian Sea.

There has been a dramatic decline in the population of P. porphyrio at Anzali Mordab in recent years. The reasons for this decline are unknown, as the extent of suitable habitat appears to have increased enormously during the last decade, but may be related to the great increase in water depth and/or spread of Azolla.

Non-bird biodiversity: Mammals: Canis lupus (V) has been recorded during severe winters.

Pressure/threats to key biodiversity
There are two reserves in the Anzali Mordab complex. The central portion of Siahkesheem Marsh (3,515 ha) was first established as a Protected Region in 1967, enlarged to 6,701 ha and upgraded to Wildlife Refuge in 1971, and reduced to 4,500 ha and downgraded to Protected Area in the 1980s. Selke Ab-bandan (360 ha) has been protected as a Wildlife Refuge since 1970. In an effort to increase the level of protection afforded to waterfowl in the Anzali Mordab, the Department of the Environment has recently taken steps to establish a non-hunting area at Sorkhan Kol in the central Mordab. The whole Anzali Mordab complex, including Siahkesheem Marsh, Selke Ab-bandan and several other ab-bandans bordering the marshes, was designated a Ramsar Site in 1975. The Department is currently undertaking a major programme of research at the Anzali Mordab to measure changes in water level, water quality, physico-chemical characteristics, etc.

The Department of the Environment should investigate a variety of possibilities for conserving waterfowl populations in the Mordab while at the same time maintaining hunting opportunities for the general public. These might include the following:

  • imposing stricter controls on the number of hunters, number of days when hunting is permitted, bag limits, hunting techniques, etc.;
  • giving greater encouragement to duck-hunting communities using traditional hunting techniques to manage and patrol their hunting areas (e.g. as occurs at Gasghiasheh Ab-bandans in the eastern Mordab);
  • encouraging sport hunters (using shot-guns) to form their own hunting clubs or societies to manage their activities more wisely;
  • improving the protection of Siahkesheem Protected Area;
  • creating a buffer zone around Selke Wildlife Refuge to reduce poaching around the edge of this extremely important reserve;
  • establishing additional non-hunting areas in other parts of the Anzali Mordab (e.g. at Sorkhan Kol).
Several major changes have occurred in the ecological character of the Anzali Mordab complex since about 1970, most strikingly the greatly increased extent of Phragmites which now almost entirely covers the east and centre of the main mordab. Rapid spread of Phragmites had already become a problem in the mid-1970s, and was attributed to falling water levels in the Mordab, as a result of the then-continuing fall in the level of the Caspian, and to increased inflow of sewage, fertilizers, etc. However, the 1.8 m rise in the level of the Caspian since 1978 has resulted in a 1 m rise in the water level in the main Anzali Mordab and increased salt water intrusion during the summer (when the Caspian is at its highest and inflow of fresh water is least). These increases in water depth and salinity will probably check the expansion of Phragmites but there are no signs yet of die-back.

Perhaps a more serious problem has been the massive spread of Azolla, which was introduced into the Caspian wetlands by rice-farmers in the 1970s and now covers much of the water within the reedbeds and quieter backwaters. The ecological consequences are not yet clear, but the greatly reduced abundance of Nelumbium maciferum and Trapa natans (both valuable waterfowl food plants) seems partly attributable to the spread of Azolla.

Hunting of waterfowl in the Anzali Mordab has increased greatly since the 1970s. The number of licensed hunters in Gilan Province rose from c.6,000 in the 1970s to c.20,000 in the early 1990s. Traditional hunting by dazzling continues at a high level, and is thought to account for at least 100,000 waterfowl per season. Hunting with shotguns has increased considerably, and there are now c.1,000 such hunters at Anzali Mordab, thought to account for another 100,000 waterfowl per season. Poaching is reported to have been a very serious problem in the reserves in the first few years after the revolution, but the situation has improved considerably, especially at Selke Wildlife Refuge where there is a new Game Guard Station and protection is excellent.

Data-sheet compiled by Dr D. A. Scott, reviewed by Dept of Environment.

Recommended citation
BirdLife International (2022) Important Bird Areas factsheet: Anzali Mordab complex. Downloaded from on 17/05/2022.