Kyrgyzstan boasts a rich diversity of habitats. Much of the country is dominated by mountain and high plateau ecosystems, with habitats ranging from alpine meadows to tundra and glaciers. The lower slopes of these mountains support globally important areas of forest - including the rare walnut and pistachio forests of the south (currently under threat from a foreign firm), and important stands of juniper and Tien Shan pine in the north. Overall, Kyrgyzstan has about 3% of the total animal species and 2% of the flora found in the world - an impressive figure for a small country that occupies just 0.13% of the world's land area. More importantly, with some highly specialised natural habitat, the country is also home to some of the world's scarcest species, particularly mammals.
The animal life of Kyrgyzstan is equally varied. Insect life is abundant throughout the country (over 10,000 species have been documented). Kyrgyzstan has well over 500 species of vertebrates and more than 3,000 types of insect, which include 60 dragonflies, 86 butterflies, 33 species of bee, 86 species of ant and 250 species of cicada. Reptiles are well represented too, with 28 species of tortoise, snake and lizard. Seventy-five different species of fish can be found in the various lakes, reservoirs and rivers of the country, with many of these being found in Kyrgyzstan's largest body of water, Lake Issyk-Kul, which has carp, trout, osman, bream, pike-perch and many other species. Many of the species are endemic cither to the central Asian region or to Kyrgyzstan in particular.
Altogether there are 83 species of mammals to be found, with the high spruce forests of mountain valleys like Suusamayr providing ideal habitat for brown bear (Ursuss arctos) and Altai maral (Cetvus canadensis canadensis). The bare mountain ridges and valleys are home to red fox (Milpes wipes), grey wolf (Canus lupus), weasels and stoats (Mustela spp), wild boar (Sus scrofa), Siberian roe deer (Capreolus pygargus), mountain hare (Lepus timidus), Siberian ibex (Capra sibirica), steppe polecat (Mustela eversmannii) and marmots (Marmota spp), which are common, while the dry, open steppe has goitred gazelle (Gazella subgutturosa) and corsac fox (Vulpes carsac). The rarest and most elusive mammal in the country is the snow leopard (Uncia uncia), which survives at altitude in small numbers in the Tien Shan, although it is notoriously difficult to see.
Only the very lucky will come across signs of the snow leopard (Uncia uncia) which still stalks the snow-capped peaks of the Tien Shan. In contrast, one of the most common animals to be seen in the mountains are the marmots-a medium-sized rodent-often visible as bundles of pale fur sitting outside their burrows. Various species occur in Kyrgyzstan, and if you are lucky you may come across one of the rarer long-tailed marmots (Marmota caudata) or the giant Menzbier's marmot (Marmota menzbieri), which is restricted to the Tien Shan mountains.
Another rare, high altitude speciality is Marco Polo sheep (Ovis amnion polii), which like the snow leopard appears in Kyrgyzstan's Red Data Book.
The dry, open steppe lands support species such as the goitred gazelle (Gazella subgutlurosa), great bustard (Otis larda), and corsac fox (Vulpes carsac), although in much lower numbers than before. In addition, ground squirrels (Spermophilus spp.) are commonly seen (often from a car window). European red squirrels (Sciurus vulgaris) even occur in urban parks.
Tigers and cheetahs once roamed the forests and plains of Kyrgyzslan, but these are long extinct. The only remaining big cat species is the elusive snow leopard. Other carnivores include wolves (Canis lupus), foxes, declining populations of Asiatic wild dog (Cuon alpinus) and the Tien Shan brown bear (Ursus arctos isabellinus). Remnant populations of European otter (Lutra lutra) are found in the Alay valley in the south-west.
Of particular note is the birdlife of Kyrgyzstan-a birdwatchers paradise with over 360 species recorded, including an intermingling of European species with more unusual birds from Asia and China. A wide range of raptors is visible-including vultures and eagles (such as the rare black vulture (Acgypius monarchus) and imperial eagle (Aguita heliaca)). The wetlands of the country support a wide diversity of wildfowl, especially during the migration periods.
Of the vertebrates, birds make up 368 of the species. Raptors and waterbirds are particularly well represented, with saker falcon (Falco cherrug), golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos), lammergeier (Gypaetus barbatus) and white-tailed eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla) being among the former group, and geese (Anser spp), swans (Cygnus spp) and pelicans (Pelecanus spp) among the latter. Lake Issyk-Kul is good for many breeding birds such as Kentish plover (Charadrius alexandrinus), snipe (Gallinago galinago), little bittern (Ixobrychus minutus), ferruginous duck (Aythya nyroca) and paddy held (Acrocephalus agricola) and Cetti's warblers (Cettia cetti).
As well as avifauna typical of mountains and lakes, birds that favour dry steppe habitat such as bustards and steppe eagle (Aquila rapax) may also be found in appropriate locations. Other rare raptors that may be seen include imperial eagle (Agnilhi heliaca) and black vulture (Aegypius monarchus).
The mountains hold a mixture of Himalayan and western palaearctic passerines such as white -winged crossbill (Loxia leucoptem), black-throated (Prunella atrogularis) and Himalayan accentor (Prunella himalayana), and Guldenstadt's (Phoenicurus erytluogasler) and liversmann's redstart (Phoenicurus erythronotus).
Migratory birds such as cranes (Grusgrus) and ibisbill (Ibidorhyncha struthersii) are found at upland lake locations like Song-Kol and Chatyr-Kol, and many wildfowl winter on the non-freezing waters of Lake Issyk-Kul. In spring and autumn, a large number of migratory birds pass through Kyrgyzstan and at this time a wealth of migratory species such as larks, buntings, thrushes and raptors appear in farmland and even in city parks. Another migratory species is demoiselle crane (Grus virgo), which breeds in small numbers in Kyrgyzstan in the foothills near Lake Issyk-Kul, but which is present in large numbers on passage.
Nature is important to Kyrgyz culture; handicraft designs take inspiration from the patterns of the natural world, while folklore and music rely heavily on a spiritual association with nature, reflecting the Kyrgyz's nomadic roots.