The IBA is located in the northern region of the Turgai Depression where there is the transition of the Turgai Plateau into the Kostanai valley. Administratively, the lake is divided between two districts of the Kostanai Region: Auliyekol (south) and Altynsarin (north). The eastern shores of the lake are in Karasu district. The site is 90 km from the regional centre of Kostanai and 37 km from the district centre of Auliyekol (Semihozyornoye). The Kostanai-Astana highway runs 22 km from the southern end of the lake and there is a railway 15 km away in the same direction.
Kushmurun lake is one of largest natural waterbodies of Kazakhstan. At times of maximum water levels, the lake covers 460,15 km2, and extends 60.7 km in length and 12.5 km in width. The shoreline is 225.9 km long. The maximum depth is 3.5 m. The watershed covers 10,480 km2. The Ubagan river (with its tributary Aschiba) and several seasonal watercourses draining the eastern and western slopes of the Turgai Depression enter the southern end of the lake. The Terekty and Shiyly rivers also feed the lake during periods of excessive flooding. In times of extensive flooding the lake overflows into the Solyony (Salty) Ubagan river. The lake is brackish and water levels are subject to natural cyclic fluctuations.
The general landscape of the area is typical of the dry and temperate steppe region, with the local topography influencing moisture distribution and resulting in a relative diversity of scenery. As much of the depression lies on alkali-saline soils the area has not been converted to agriculture and much is virtually pristine. The eastern slopes also remain largely intact but all of the gently sloping western side has been ploughed. Original sod-grass complexes (predomintly Festuca sp. and Stipa sp.) cover the pristine areas from the Turgai plateau to the Depression's floor in combination with other complexes according to changes in moisture and salinity.
Formerly the lake’s shore was covered by large reedbeds but nowadays the reedbeds are sparsely distributed and almost all of the shoreline consists of extensive muddy shoals. The southern part of the eastern shoreline has a complicated configuration with many peninsula-like protuberances and one large island. In the lowest parts of the Ubagan floodplain, close to the southern and northern extremities of the lake, a scattering of small, reed-covered lakes can be found.
The eastern side of the Turgai Depression lies on average 3-5 km from the lake's shore and over the entire length consists of steep slopes cut with a network of gulleys and cliffs up to 100 m above the level of the shoreline. Along the upper edge of the slopes and by the side of many of the gulleys are small birch and aspen woods with a secondary growth of bird cherry, black alder and hawthorn. On the Depression’s floor there are lush Salsola-laden associations and Salsola-Artemisia compositions interspersed with fragments of meadows and Festuca-covered steppe. The shoreline is bordered by a narrow belt of salty floodplain. Alkaline areas are widespread on the higher terraces.
154 species have been recorded of which 75 are waterbirds. Even in years of low water levels the lake supports large numbers of moulting birds. The lake is very important during spring and autumn migration holding very large numbers of waterfowl and waders. On 1 August 2001, a count along a 7 km randomly selected stretch of the eastern shore recorded 10,000 feeding birds including Calidris minuta, C. ferruginea, C. alpina, C. temminckii, C. alba, Philomachus pugnax, Phalaropus lobatus, Arenaria interpres, Pluvialis squatarola and Tringa cinereus. Despite the brackish nature of the water, the lake supports impressive numbers of swans, geese, ducks, grebes and, in some years, flocks of Grus grus. Accurate counts of the entire lake are considered impossible due to access difficulties and size of the waterbody but estimates based on sample counts suggest that the lake supports tens of thousands of waterfowl annually. On 25 September 2005 a 2 km pedestrian count recorded 1,953 birds within a 200 metre-wide transect, while the adjoining open water held more than 30,000 birds. The total number of Anseriformes and waders considered to be present at that time was c. 120,000 birds: ducks – 70.1%; waders - 5.3%; gulls – 3.8%, swans – 1.2% (Cygnus olor, Cygnus cygnus and Cygnus columbianus).
The adjacent steppe and forest plots hold small numbers of Grus virgo and the biome-restricted Melanocorypha yeltoniensis and M. leucoptera.
About 17 species included in the National Red Book occur. Grus virgo and Tetrax tetrax breed in small numbers. Regular passage species are Pelecanus crispus, P. onocrotalus, Cygnus cygnus, Cygnus columbianus, Grus grus, Anser erythropus, Branta ruficollis, Pandion haliaetus, Haliaeetus albicilla, Aquila chrysaetos, Aquila heliaca, Falco peregrinus, Aquila clanga and Larus ichthyaetus. Grus leucogeranus has been reported from the southern part of the lake. Vanellus gregarius is suspected of breeding.
Non-bird biodiversity: Ichthyofauna is represented by two common species Carassius auratus and C. carassius.
In the shore zone and on the adjacent areas about 30 species of mammals occur: Alces alces (irregular), Capreolus pygargus (irregular), Canis lupus, Vulpes vulpes (common), Vulpes corsac (rare), Mustela eversmanni, Mustela erminea, Mustela nivalis, Meles meles, Marmota bobac, Spermophillus major (common), Ellobius talpinus, Phodopus sungorus, Allocricetulus eversmanni, Arvicola terestris (abundant), Microtus oeconomus, Microtus arvalis, Lagurus lagurus and others. Ondatra zibetica is common everywhere within the Ubagan Valley. Lepus europaeus is ubiquitous, while Lepus timidus is found within the vicinity of scrubby and woody plots around riverbeds or hollows.
In areas with high soil salinity, and at the northern margin of their distribution, are two species of desert flora - Nitraria shoberi and Atriplex cana. Black alder - a relic tree species of the steppe zone – occurs irregularly on the major slopes of the Turgai Depression next to the south-eastern shore of the lake, together with a range of species representing boreal floral communities.
Habitat and land use
The lake is situated in a region of extensive agro-industrial development with well-developed infrastructure and a relatively high population density. However, due to the high mineral content, the lake's coastal lowland shores and the major slope of the Turgai Depression has avoided conversion and continues in a natural state. Before the impact of the economic crises of the mid 1990s, suitable areas neighbouring the lake were used for pastures and hay fields. Following a dramatic decline in regional livestock numbers, the cattle-raising economy is beginning to show signs of resuscitation, though it doesn’t yet have any perceptible influence on the lake’s ecosystems. There are several villages in the vicinity of the lake, including Kushmurun village. There is a large open-cast brown coal mining enterprise close to the southern shore of the lake. At present, the lake is not used for large scale fishery enterprises.
The area of Kushmurun lake is rich in localities containing historical monuments and artifacts many of which pertain to the Paleolithic epoch or are related to the prominent historical figures of the Kazakh nation living in the XVIII-XIX centuries.
Pressure/threats to key biodiversity
The major factor exerting a negative influence on the lake’s ecosystem is an insufficient water supply caused by ploughing of the watershed and modification of water flows. Pollution from pesticides and fertilisers may be becoming an increasing problem. Steadily increasing numbers of livestock may eventually lead to overgrazing. Steppe fires are an immediate threat to nesting birds. In recent years water quality has deteriorated due to the disposal of incidental groundwater from the lignite mine directly into the lake. Windblown dirt from the dumps of extracted rock represents a source of air and water contamination.
Due to the lake's size, hunting pressure is low. Unregulated tourism and recreational activities are a potential problem.
Conservation responses/actions for key biodiversity
A series of aerial counts of waterbird concentrations of the lakes belonging to the Ubagan river valley and the major lakes of the Turgai Depression, including Kushmurun, there were conducted in the late summers of 1985, 1987 and 1988 (AUSRI of Nature Protection of SU and Head Administration on Fauna Protection of KazSSR). In the second half of 1990s there were sporadic observations conducted by a team of the Institute of Zoology of Kazakhstan togther with the Naurzum Reserve scientific group and Finnish specialists represented the Finnish WWF working group researching Anser erythropus. In 1999 and 2001 a group of specialists on a WWF Project investigated the current ecological conditions and made short-term observations of the early-summer avifauna. Since 2005, monitoring of migrating waterfowl in the region has been conducted within the UNEP/GEF Project “Development of Migratory Routes and Wetland Habitats with regard to Conservation of Grus leucogeranus and other Waterbirds in Asia”. However, regular monitoring of migrating waterfowl has still to be developed. The correlation of moulting congregations and natural phases of the lake’s hydrology and an elucidation of nesting specifics are also included in the future research agenda.
In the 1990s Kushmurun Lake was proposed for inclusion in the national list of potential Ramsar sites. In 1999 it was confirmed as an important regional Wetland Area. In 2006, within the Regional GEF/UNEP/WWF Project “Econet – Central Asia” a national group of experts prepared and submitted to the State Committee of Forestry and Hunting of the Ministry of Agriculture the Scheme of Ecological Network of Kazakhstan Republic. The Scheme includes establishing the entire area of Kushmurun lake as part of the regime of sustainable Nature management.
The site is part of the Nature Heritage of Regional importance 'Urochische Bolshaya Ghora' (“Big Mountain”) covering the scattered groves of black alder (c 5ha). All economic activities are banned in the site. Preservation practices are the responsibility of the local administration and the nearest agency of forest-management. The lake is included into an area of hunting facilities assigned to the regional hunting society. By the decision of the society’s counsel, a 1 km wide 'No disturnbance' zone around the lake’s shore has been introduced for game.
The site is included on the list of Objects of State Nature Heritage (national government decree №416 of 03.05.2005), and the roster of waterbodies of the National Nature Preservation Fund (decree №932 of 28.09.2006).