The Sarykopa Lake System is situated in the north-eastern part of Zhangeldy district, 300 km to the south of the regional centre of Kostanai, and 60 km to the north-east of the district centre of Turai.
It lies in the Southern Turgai physico-geographical province, represented by a predominantly smooth plain scarcely rising above 200 m. The hollow in which the lake lies is oblong. In the north the southern escarpment of the Torgai Plateau, the most rugged landscape in the region, runs down towards the shore, elsewhere the shores are gently sloping. The southern shore area extends to the Torgai River valley.
The region is remarkable for its well developed network of watercourses. While many other lakes in the area tend to be shallow and seasonal, the Sarykopa Lake System benefits from belonging to one of the largest drainage basins of the region (11,000 km2), which means that the hydrological regime is relatively stable. The most significant watercourses feeding the System are the Teke and Saryozen rivers, with the width of parts of the latter c54 m and depths of 15 m.
The System itself consists of a network of lakes and ponds covering an area of 336 km2 (of which reeds occupy 253.7 km2), extending 50.2 km in length and 12.3 km in width. Depths vary considerably but average 1-1.5 m. The deepest and most open waterbody is Zharkol (5.4 x2 km), with a depth of 2.5-3 m. The longest stretch of open water, Aituar, resembles a huge river being 30-45 m in width and between 6-8 m deep. The System has well-developed reedbeds. The Lake System is subject to a cyclic hydrological regime alternating between periods of flooding and drying-up.
Sarykopa is situated in the dry steppe sub-zone. The vegetation of the surrounding plains consists of the typical vegetation complexes of intermediate territories, arranged in accordance with the varying moisture gradient. In the elevated, most exposed areas, the commonest compositions include Artemisia pauciflora, Atriplex cana, Anabasis salsa and Nanophyton erinaceum. At slightly lower elevations Spiraea hypericifolia, Festuca valesiaca, Stipa capillata, Stipa sareptana, Festuca valesiaca and Artemisia gracilescens are commoner. The area of flooded meadows contain the grasses Elytrigia repens, Calamagrostis epigeios and Bromus inermis; the hollows and depressions Phragmites australis and Carex melanostachya, and the wet saline depressions complexes of Leymus ramosus, Puccinellia hauptiana, P. dolicholepis, P. tenuiflora, Leymus angustrus and Psathyrostachys juncea.
The area is moderately populated. Agricultural activities have reduced compared to 20 years ago with grazing and hay-making in the depressions, and crop growing in areas 37-40 km to the north the Lake. Formerly, Sarykopa was a traditional place for fishing but since being declared a Reserve, commercial fishing has been banned.
More than 100 waterfowl and shorebird species have been recorded including: Gaviiformes (1), Podicepites (4), Pelecaniformes (3), Ciconiiformes (8), Phoenicopteri (1), Anseriformes (26), Limicolae (41), Lariformes (13), Ralliformes (7) and Gruiformes (3).
The Sarykopa Lake System has a complex of mature wetland habitats which support more than 50 species of breeding waterbird.
A survey of 1 ha on 26 May 2004 recorded 28 Anser anser with 8 broods (varying from 2 to 6 goslings), 97 Netta rufina (including 10 females), 120 Aythya ferina (18 females), 1 Aythya fuligula, 5 male Anas platyrhynchos, 12 Anas strepera (3 females), 112 Anas clypeata (9 females), 23 Anas querquedula, 1 Podiceps nigricolis, 7 Larus ridibundus, 50 Chlidonias leucoptera, 12 Gelochelidon nilotica and 5 Sterna hirundo.
Pelicaniformes favour remote areas difficult to access, while the impenetrable reedbeds provide excellent conditions for Ciconiiformes. Grebes are numerous and include Podiceps cristatus, P. griseigena and P. nigricollis. In years when the wet meadows are flooded Larus minutus, Chlidonias leucoptera and Ch. nigra can be numerous.
About 70 species use the site during migration. Ducks are most numerous, while geese are compartaively scarce but include Anser albifrons, A. erythropus and Branta ruficollis.
Particularly when water levels are high, the area is used by many thousands of moulting geese, ducks and coots. The site is also important for large numbers of Northern waders. On the shore of Tatyrkol Lake, in August 1985, about 8,000 Limosa limosa were recorded. Cranes occasionally use the area for moulting.
22 species listed in the National Red Data Book have been recorded, representing 38.6% of the total number of bird species, 10-12 of these are known to nest.
There are colonies of Pelecanus onocrotalus – from 38 pairs in 1985 to 400 pairs in 1987; P. crispus – 50-80 pairs; Platalea leucorodia – up to 400 individuals. Other breeding species include Grus grus – 30-40 pairs; Cygnus cygnus; Oxyura leucocephala and Aythya nyroca. Larus ichthyaetus possibly breeds. Passage species include B. ruficollis, A. erythropus, Grus leucogeranus, Cygnus columbianus, Haliaeetus albicilla and Aquila heliaca. Around the lake the following have been confirmed as breeding: Grus virgo, Syrrhaptes paradoxus, Aquila nipalensis, Bubo bubo and Tetrax tetrax. Breeding by Vanellus gregarius was confirmed in June 1986 and in 2003. Otis tarda may still breed. There are irregular records of Phoenicopterus roseus, Egretta garzetta and Pterocles orientalis. In addition to the National Red Book species, on the outskirts of the area the globally threatened Falco naumanni, Circus macrourus and, occasionally, Aegypius monachus can sometimes be observed.
Non-bird biodiversity: The System supports 31-33 species of mammal, including an important fauna of jerboas (Dipodidae). The area has the largest population of Sus scrofa in the Kostanai region. Saiga tatarica uses the area in summer, and Alces alces occurs accidentally.
The predominant flora is typical for that of the semi-arid steppic plains. On the surface of some rivers (Saryozen, Teke) and channels (Terekty, Aituar) the rare Nymphaea candida and Nuphar luteum can be common.
Habitat and land use
At present the IBA's ecosystems are considered to be in a satisfactory condition and following a natural hydrological cycle. Human activities have declined from the middle of the 1990s and now only include limited grazing by cattle and moderate hay-making in the estuary of the Saryozen river. Subsistence fishing is carried out by local residents.
Pressure/threats to key biodiversity
Frequent and indiscriminate fires in the reedbeds represent the main hazard for the lake's ecosystem at present. There is also poaching, especially of Sus scrofa.
Conservation responses/actions for key biodiversity
There was regular hydrological, hydro-physical and zoogeographical research carried out in the 1940s, but efforts later declined until a group of experts from the Zoology Institute of MS-AS of Kazakhstan carried out research into the migration of Anser erythropus in 1996.
The first conservation efforts date from 1931 when the creation of a network of reserves along the Aralo-Turgai Strait was contemplated. In 1986, a Wildlife Sanctuary covering 63,000 ha was established. In 2000, Sarykopa Lake was included in the “Stepnoi (Steppic) Turgai” World Heritage List nomination. Currently, the necessary documents are being compiled for including the site in the List of Ramsar sites, and the National Development Program of SPA of Kazakhstan envisages promotion of the Sarykopa Sanctuary to the status of a Nature Reserve.
The IBA is identical to the Sarykopa Wildlife Zakaznik. Since 1998, management of the area has been the responsibility of staff from the Naurzum Reserve, with two inspectors detailed to the site.