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Kyrgyzstan is an unusual land. Despite its small size, it has a large variety of plants and animals, possessing nearly one per cent of all known species in just 0.13 per cent of the world's land mass. The country is particularly rich in medicinal herbs, which were sold throughout the Soviet Union.

Kyrgyzstan's ecology is fragile, and depends on the specific combination of species which have evolved here and which play an important part in processes such as the creation and preservation of soils, water distribution, cleaning of surface waters, and atmospheric composition. The high level of adaptation to the extreme conditions means that once extinct, these species and the functions they provide cannot be replaced by other type of organism. Preservation of the environmental ecosystem had no place in Soviet planning and the Kyrgyz government inherited a slew of Soviet-era problems. There are 50 functioning enterprises using highly poisonous substances but no suitable storage sites. There are also 49 uranium dumps, containing 145 million tons of radioac-tive and toxic wastes, many of which are situated close to villages. Some 6,000 hectares of land have already been exposed to radioactive pollution. Over 90 per cent of land in the Osh region is contaminated by DDI and smaller, though still significant, percentages are common throughout the country.

The other major hangover from Soviet production schedules is the serious erosion of land as a result of overgrazing (one third of grasslands have become unusable). This has, however, been less of a problem since independence, as a result of the drastic drop in numbers of livestock.

Most worrying of all is the absence of adequate legislation to control the potentially damaging activities of private businesses. In 1998 and 1999 lorries carrying cyanide for use in the Kumtor gold mine crashed, spilling their cargo into river systems leading to Lake Issyk Kul and the Syr Darya river.

Kyrgyzstan has lost half of its forest cover in the last 50 years. The economic difficulties since independence have driven people to live more directly from the environment: households fell trees for fuel and have encroached upon the fragile forest ecosystems of Sary Chelek, Talas and Fergana just to survive, causing irreparable damage. Attempts at reforestation have failed due to the vulnerability of young trees in such a harsh climate; research shows that only 10 per cent of trees transplanted since 1997 have survived.

Extinction of animal and plant species has resulted from over-hunting, degradation of soil and water, and loss of habitat. Research suggests that global warming is likely to destroy 70 per cent of the world's colder habitats by the end of this century, resulting in extinction of several more plant and animal species.

The future holds some promise, however. The government recently developed a National Biodiversity Strategy which will lead, in the coming years, to a series of wide- ranging projects to address the interrelated ecological and social issues of environmental degradation and poverty.

The current network of protected areas, inherited from the Soviet system, consists of six strict reserves (zapovednik), where all economic activity is prohibited, one national park, where limited land use is allowed, five nature reserves, and 71 protected areas (zakaznik), which were established to protect specific species or complexes of species.

Environmental Issues - At the end of the Soviet era there were an estimated 14 million sheep in Kyrgyzstan. Since then flock numbers have been privatised and divided. Economic hardship, a loss of effective management and a lack of governmental infrastructure have seen flocks numbers dwindle to about six million. Individuals lack the means for covering shepherds’ wages, meeting transport costs or maintaining infrastructure (eg bridges) that would allow these small flocks to travel to traditional jailoos. This in turn has resulted in serious undergrazing of mountain pastures leading to a succession of foreign plant invasions. Meanwhile pastures near villages are ironically overgrazed, leading to degraded fields prone to soil erosion. 

Uranium for the Soviet nuclear military machine was mined in Kyrgyzstan (the Kyrgyz SSR’s uranium sector earned the sobriquet ‘Atomic Fortress of the Tian Shan’), and a number of abandoned mine sites threaten to leak their radioactive contents into rivers and groundwater. Independent Kyrgyzstan has closed most of the mines and institutes and begun to grapple with the environmental problems they created.

The country’s reserves of fresh water, locked up in the form of glaciers, remain its greatest natural resource. But these are shrinking and a UN climate study predicts that at the current pace of retreat, the number of glaciers will fall from 8200 to just 150 in 40 years. The loss of Kyrgyzstan’s glaciers could result in drought, desertification and crop failure here and also in neighbouring countries.

Wildlife - Kyrgyzstan offers an annual refuge for thousands of migrating birds, including rare cranes and geese. The country is believed to have had the world’s second-largest snow leopard population, although numbers are declining rapidly. Issyk-Kul and Sary-Chelek lakes are Unesco-affiliated biosphere reserves.