Flora & fauna
Turkmenistan produces four domestic animals unique in the world," said the professor: "the Akhal-Teke horse, the Astrakhan sheep, the Bactrian camel, and the Ovcharki dog.
Sacred Horses: Memoirs of a Turkmen Cowboy [Jonathan Maslow]
With 80% of Turkmenistan's territory desert, the flora and fauna of Turkmenistan is focused strongly around species able to withstand arid conditions. The desert ccosystems of the Kara Kum are varied, including expanses of barchan sand dunes, the flat clay desert known as takyr, and large stretches dominated by the gnarled saxaul trees. The mountain ecosystems of the Kopet Dag and Kugitang ranges include the pistachio savannahs of Badkyz and, above around 1,000m, landscapes dominated by juniper. River valley environments include the remarkable salt-resistant tugay forests of the Amu Darya. In spring, the deserts and hillsides of Turkmenistan, moistened by the winter rains and snows and warmed by the sun, briefly erupt into colour, as ephemeral and other flowering plants put on a wonderful display. The brilliant reds of the poppies and tulips turn uneventful landscapes into scenes to inspire any artist.
Among the wildlife of Turkmenistan, two species of hoofed mammals, protected in the country's nature reserves, have become almost symbols of the country. The goitred gazelle or jieran, the name deriving from its enlarged larynx, and the Central Asian wild ass, known as kulan, are both found in large herds. Badkyz Nature Reserve is a particularly good place to see both, as well as herds of the Transcaspian urial, a wild sheep. Other rare mammals include the Bukhara deer of the tugay forests and small populations of leopard in the Kopet Dag Mountains. You are highly unlikely to see either. The Turan tiger and Asiatic cheetah are both now extinct in Turkmenistan.
One large hoofed mammal you will have little problem in encountering in Turkmenistan is the camel: domesticated single-humped dromedaries, which are kept for their wool, milk and meat. Dromedaries (Arabian camels) are everywhere, wandering scenically between villages and towns. Ambling in front of oil derricks in the Balkan Region, or the Mausoleum of Sultan Sanjar at Merv, these creatures add a certain exoticism to many a tourist photo taken in Turkmenistan.
The Turkmen deserts are home to large rodent populations, which survive the harsh conditions by spending much of their time underground, where temperatures are milder and more equable. Amongst the most common species are ground squirrels, known as susliks; great gerbils, much larger than the creatures common as pets in Western households; and the nocturnal jerboas, with huge eyes and long hind legs. The holes made by burrowing rodents cover many desert slopes. The desert nights also accommodate porcupines, foxes and striped hyenas. The rodents form a major food source for the many birds of prey, which include eagles, buzzards, falcons and vultures, and which are often to be seen gliding above the desert terrain. Hunting with falcons is also popular, and is carried out both by local Turkmen clubs and hunting parties from the Gulf states.
Turkmenistan has a fearsome collection of reptiles, including several species of highly poisonous snakes, among them Central Asian cobras and saw-scaled vipers. Many of the Karakum’s nastiest inhabitants are really exciting to see in real life – most importantly the grey zemzen, or varan, a large monitor lizard – though these are extremely rare. This giant can reach a length of up to 1.8m, and a weight of 2.5kg. This almost prehistoric-looking creature delivers both a fierce bite and a painful blow with its tail, but is traditionally regarded as a welcome neighbour by nomadic Turkmen families because it keeps down the snake population, scares them away, eats mice and eradicates colonies of sandflies.
You are also likely to see desert foxes, owls and the very common desert squirrel. Tarantulas and black widows are both indigenous to Turkmenistan, although you are unlikely to see them. Snake season is from April to May. Cobras, vipers and scorpions can all be found in the desert, so tread with caution. Turkmen folklore has it that once a snake has looked at you, you’ll die shortly afterwards unless you kill it first.
Among the domesticated animals, two distinctive Turkmen species of dogs deserve mention. You may well come across the large Central Asian sheepdog known as alabai, whose ears and tail are traditionally docked to make the animals less vulnerable in fights. Turkmens also believe that cutting the ears down improves the animals' hearing. Alabais are resilient to large temperature variations and modest in their food needs. While they can be highly affectionate, be wary of approaching any alabai guarding a flock. Much less common is the tazy, a lean and alert hunting dog of the borzoi family. Tazys are often used in conjunction with falcons for hunting.
The most famous of Turkmenistan’s many interesting species is the Akhal-Teke horse, a beautiful golden creature that is believed to be the ancestor of today’s purebred.
Nature Reserves - Turkmenistan’s eight nature reserves are not designed for public use – they have been set aside for scientific research, as per the Soviet model. A permit is required to visit a reserve and these are available from the Ministry of Nature. Your travel agency will need to apply for this on your behalf, but the process is usually a straightforward one.