Uzbekistan isn’t a country that necessarily springs to mind when thinking about pioneering conservation. Nestled in the heart of Central Asia, it’s one of two double-landlocked countries in the world (handy pub quiz knowledge right there), and is best known for its silk road cities and Muynak’s collection of fishing boats stranded in desert following the Aral Sea disaster.
There’s a lot going on in the conservation world though, mainly surrounding the critically endangered saiga antelope. The Ustyurt Plateau of Uzbekistan is part of the saiga antelopes’ rangeland, and conservation bodies such as the Saiga Conservation Alliance, Fauna and Flora International and the UNDP, are actively working to conserve saiga migrating and breeding in this area.
The Ustyurt is in the NW of Uzbekistan, bordering Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. It is globally important as an almost pristine example of the fast-diminishing semi-arid biome, and is home to several IUCN red-listed species. It is also home to vast subterranean oil and gas supplies, with investment into exploration and extraction increasing annually. There is no doubt that the Ustyurt will be developed as Uzbekistan becomes a leader for hydrocarbon exports in Central Asia. The question is, how can this inevitable expansion of industry occur without biodiversity losing out?
One of the proposed mechanisms to achieve this is by implementing biodiversity offsets. Biodiversity offsets are a way for industry to develop, with any ecological damage caused in one area offset through enhancing habitats and biodiversity in another: a ‘no net loss’ to biodiversity approach. Biodiversity offsets can be a contentious topic, but in Uzbekistan they present a real chance for biodiversity to be conserved, when it wouldn’t ordinarily be, under current legislation.
But how to make effective offsets for industry on the Ustyurt? Some measure of current impacts is needed, so that these can be accounted for under future development. This is a huge task. There are direct impacts, such as physical removal of habitat during infrastructure construction and pipelines blocking migration routes; examples of indirect impacts could be increased noise pollution disturbing wildlife, and industry workers (plus their families and domestic livestock) migrating in and putting additional pressure on limited resources. So when time to work out what is going on in an ecosystem is limited, what can we choose to assess to maximise on time and knowledge gained?
Choose plants. Surveying them can be quick and simple, they provide fundamental information on habitat quality and structure, and they have to respond to disturbances in-situ. The desert plants of the Ustyurt are seriously hardcore, contending with temperatures from -50 to +50°C, intense UV, strong winds blasting them, very little water, high salt content of soils… but they are also very sensitive to human-mediated disturbance. So by surveying species richness and percentage cover of plants away from industrial infrastructure, assessment of the spatial scale of direct habitat impacts from industry can begin (if you’re interested in this, you can read our paper here).
The beauty of looking at the response of plants to disturbance is that effects can be scaled up to higher taxonomic groups: what affects plants, affects invertebrates, herptiles, mammals. Because of this, plants on the Ustyurt have provided the foundation for conservation policy which will impact industrial activity and hopefully the long-term survival of the saiga. So I think it’s a real shame when plants are often perceived as boring and get ignored.
Don’t get me wrong, I love a big fluffy mammal as much as the next person, but give me plants any day: they don’t run away when you get close.