Markakol Lake is an alpine lake in the Kurchume district of the Eastern Kazakhstan region. It lies in the central depression of the bed of the Southern Altai Tectonic Trough created by glaciers in the Quarternary period. It is situated between two flanking mountain ranges – Azutau and Kurchum – with the Bobrovskaya Hollow to the north-east and the Kaldzhyr River, leading to the Zaisan Valley, to the south-west. The lake lies at an altitude of 1,449 m and is 38 km in length and up to 18 km in width. The average depth is 14.3 m, the maximum being 27 m. The shoreline is 105 km in length. The drainage area totals 1,180 km, and the current capacity of the lake is estimated to be 6.5 cubic km. 95 streams enter the lake but only a few of these can be considered as major watercourses - the Topolyovka, Tikhushka, Elovka, Karabulak, Zhirengka and Kaldzhyr. There are a few bays and inlets around the shore and inlets are often slightly raised with waterlogged stands of birch, spruce and willow. Most inlets are shallow and often have prolific growth of aquatic plants such as Poligonum sp., Ceratophyllum sp. and Potamogeton sp. The largest bays are where the Kaldzhyr river rises and at the mouths of the Topolyovka, Tikhushka, Elovka, Glukhovaya and Urunkhaika rivers. At a few sites, where the surrounding foothills reach the shoreline, erosion has created bluffs and cliffs.
The Markakol Hollow is surrounded by predominantly sharp-ridged and rugged terrain. The steep slopes of the mountain ranges are deeply cut by valleys with rivers running down into the lake. The Kurchum range is more rugged and rocky than the Azutau, which tends to be smoother and more regular in shape. A 1-2 km wide valley borders the west, north and north-eastern sections of the shoreline, elsewhere the shoreline belt is narrow.
More than 700 species of higher plants have been recorded. The biogeographic location of the site means that flora from the Kazakh steppes, the boreal forests of Southern Siberia and the semi-deserts of Central Asia occur together in this area. Additional diversity is created by the varied mountain relief and climate conditions of the site. The commoest groups are sod-forming grasses (Gramineae), buttercups (Rununculus sp.), Cruciferae, Compositae and Rosa species.
Five altitudinal vegetation belts can be found at Markakol. The main assemblages are forest and meadow-steppe complexes which vary both in relation to altitude and exposure on northern or southern facing slopes. Slopes with an intermediate orientation support the greatest variety of vegetation.
The forest-steppe zone (1,450-1,600 m) is represented by grass-herb mixed meadows with a patchwork of shrub thickets. The south facing slopes have Fescue-dominant meadow formations. The scree slopes support barberry and gooseberry bushes and mixtures of Steppic peony, Altaic rhubarb and onions. In the mountain taiga zone (1,450-1,900 m) woody species are dominant, with intermittent larch (Larix sp.) growth. The upper parts of the northern slopes are covered by coniferous forests comprised of fir (Abies sp.), larch (Larix sp.), birch (Betula verrucosa), aspen (Populus tremola) and rowan (Sorbus sp.), with the forest floor often hidden by a solid carpet of mosses. At the highest elevations of forest the usual tall larch form is replaced by its prostrate counterpart. Following the river beds and all along the shore of the lake there is a prolific growth of montane-riverine, moss-decorated spruce forests. Since the site only just reaches the southern boundary of the Siberian pine (Pinus sibrica), this splendid tree is very scarce. The sub-alpine belt (1,900-3,000m) is represented, in general, by tall-grass humid meadows. Higher still lie alpine short-grass meadows and mountain tundra with stunted scrub, grass and barren rocky areas. The nival belt (from 3,000m )includes the top parts of the Kurchum range.
The waters of Markakol have 30 species of higher plants.
The avifauna includes 260 species, of which 143 breed, 60 are winter visitors and 14 are accidental. The most common are Anas platyrhynchos, Anas strepera, Aythya ferina, Aythya fuligula, Bucephala clangula, Podiceps cristatus, Mergus merganser, Milvus migrans, Circus macrourus, Larus sp., Gallinago gallinago, Perdix sp., Tetrao tetrix and Bonasa bonasia. Rare birds, included in the National Red Data Book, are Haliaeetus albicilla, Pandion haliaetus, Tetraogallus altaicus, Ciconia nigra, Grus grus, Bubo bubo and Aquila chrysaetos. Larus ichthyaetus occurs in summer.
Between 7 and 15 July 2006, along the whole length of the lake’s shore, 1,524 birds of 25 species, the majority being water- and shore-birds, were observed. 45 broods of 6 waterbird species were also recorded. The most numerous species were: Mergus merganser - 609 (39.9%), Aythya fuligula – 291 (19.0%) and Anas strepera – 159 (10.4%).
Non-bird biodiversity: 70 species of higher plants are of particular conservation importance. Since 1981, 11 species are included in the Red Data Book of Kazakhstan: Rheum altaicum, Rhaponticum carthamoides, Leio-spora exscapa, Huperzia selago, Erythronium sibiricum, Tulipa heteropetala, Paeonia hybrida, Macropodium nivale, Rhodiola rosea, Gymnospermium altaicum and Epipogium aphyllum. There are 9 endemic species, including Rheum altaicum.
The animal component of the reserve’s wildlife reveals an outstanding variety at the level of every major taxonomic group. There are 283 species of invertebrate, including several rare species. Six species of fish are known including endemic races of Loach, Grayling and Brachymystax lenok. The mammal fauna totals 55 species, including shrews, mountain hare, rabbit, 20 species of rodent (including the endemic Myospalax myospalax), bear, wolf, ermine, weasel, pole-cat, glutton, lynx, roe deer, Siberian deer, European elk and ibex. There are occasional reports of snow leopard.
Habitat and land use
For effective conservation of Markakol, a range of activities are required. Firstly, the size of the reserve should be increased to include the boundary drainage system. The following areas are proposed - Zhyregnka-Topolyovka, from Lubyazhykha to Kaldzhyr (with the exception of the land immediately around Nizhniaya and Verhniaya Elovka settlements), Chumek and the Matabay mountain range. It is also desirable to exercise some form of conservation activity within the valley of the Kaldzhyr river, from the area of its upper reaches to the waterfalls by Prirechnoye village. This expansion of the protected area would result in a considerable reduction in disturbance and of direct persecution of species.
Pressure/threats to key biodiversity
In general the state of the Reserve’s ecosystems can be regarded as good and improving since the establishment of the protected area and subsequent halting of previous commercial exploitation such as logging, ploughing, hay making and grazing. However, a few negative factors still operate, the most crucial being fires - in 1997 846 ha of forest was destroyed. This section of forest remains as a major breeding area forest insect pests.
Wildlife is also subject to extreme meteorological and temperature regimes which may influence the success of reproduction, the duration of intra-migratory staging of birds or, even, the outcome of wintering. The winters are harsh and snowy, with temperatures as low as —44oC. The annual average temperature, -4.1oC, is the lowest in the Southern Altai region.
Conservation responses/actions for key biodiversity
More detailed monitoring of breeding bird populations is required, preferably later in the year than the July 2006 count which almost certainly under-recorded the true number of waterbirds present.
Markakol State Nature Reserve was established in August 1976 with the primary aim of preserving in their natural state the landscape and wildlife complexes of the Southen Altai. The reserve covers an area of 75,048 ha (of which 30,598 ha are the terrestrial parts and 44,440 ha are the waters of the lake). To facilitate management, the reserve is divided into three parts: Northern and Southern montane forest territories and Lake areas. There is also a 2 km wide buffer zone around the site.
The organisers of the breeding bird survey of Zaisan Lake in the summer of 2006 express their appreciation of the quality of the work carried out by the participants of the expedition: N.N. Guziy, U.K. Zinchenko and S.V. Pegnkov, and of the support of all of the Reserve’s employees.