Tourist threat to the Relict Gull on Lake Alakol

Just back from my latest visit to the Djungar Alatau Mountains of Eastern Kazakhstan, the first since 2019. Not so much as expedition as an exploratory visit, gathering information for future projects. I had originally intended to take horses in the Tarbagatai Mountains, to the north of Lake Alakol, to fill in yet another part of the journey undertaken by Thomas and Lucy Atkinson during their return from the Great Steppe in the summer of 1849. However, no horses were available and so we returned south to the Djungar Alatau.

En route, we were able to complete a circuit of Alakol lake itself and to visit Ostrov Kishkene-Araltobe, one of three islands in the central part of the in lake. The islands are protected places, due to the presence there of a very rare species of relict gull, Ichthyaetus relictus, which can be found on just a handful of lakes in Kazakhstan, Mongolia and China and whose total numbers are estimated at around 10,000. It is classified as ‘vulnerable’ on the IUCN Red List.

Relict Gull, Ichthyaetus relictus

The Alakol State Sanctuary was created to protect the lake as an important breeding and nesting ground for this and other wetland birds after UNESCO designated the Alakol Biosphere Reserve as part of its Man and Biosphere Programme in 2013. Not far away, on Piski Island, for example, there are flocks of flamingo, and 40 species of other birds.

Sadly – and despite prominent warning signs telling people not to land on the island – there is a constant stream of speedboats bringing visitors from both Kabanbai on the north-east coast of the lake and from the southern shore also. Many of the boats have ‘boom box’ sound systems that blare out pop music during the 30-minute crossing to the island. Signs of human activity on the island, including empty bottles, beer cans, plastic waste, etc, are everywhere. Unless this activity is stopped, the future for the Relict Gull on Alakol Lake looks bleak.

A sign on the island warning visitors not to land
Visitors returning from a party on the island
Speedboats prepare to take visitors to the island
Rubbish on the island

Tourism is increasing around Alakol, with thousands of visitors travelling from Almaty in the south and from Oskemen in the north to spend time on the rapidly developing resorts. Without enforcement action to stop the disturbance caused by the speedboats and visitors, birdlife on the lake will be decimated.

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