Kazakhstan's Altyn Emel boasts deserts, forests — and a sand dune that sings

June 26, 2017, 6:13 a.m.
Man with backpack in Altyn Emel National Desert Park with Aktau Mountains at beautiful sunrise in Kazakhstan
Photo: Pikoso.kz/Shutterstock

Last week, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization added 23 new sites to its World Network of Biospheres, areas that balance the needs of people and nature, of economy and ecology. On that list is the Altyn Emel Biosphere Reserve, a spectacular and special spot in Kazakhstan.

From ancient petroglyphs, to endangered species like the Siberian toad and Przewalski horse, to a huge sand dune famous for the singing sound it makes, Altyn Emel National Park is the perfect candidate to be included in the biosphere reserve program. Its rich diversity of flora, fauna, geology, tourism and scientific opportunities are exactly what the program seeks to encourage.

The Atlyn Emel Biosphere Reserve includes the national park, an already protected area. UNESCO notes that the reserve "includes a large number of endemic plants" that are found in the deserts, riparian forests, deciduous and spruce forests, salt marshes and the floodplains of the Ili River. The park and its natural attractions bring tourism to the area.

The Aktau hills, pictured here, feature "a unique paleontological deposit," according to travel site Caravanistan. "[Fifty six] species of Early Miocene flora like pine, spruce, birch, alder, oak, walnut, chestnut, linden, frame, pistachio, ailanthus have been discovered here, as well as remains of ancient animals like crocodiles, turtles and giant rhinos with an estimated age of 25-30 million years."

The reserve is also home to the Singing Sand Dune in Altyn-Emel National Park, a huge crescent-shaped sand dune famous for the noise the sand makes when the wind blows over it. According to OrexCA, "In dry weather this sand dune emits a sound like an organ playing... The scarcely perceptible movement of sand sliding down the slope causes the humming and vibration. The friction caused by the movement of dry grains of sand, combined with the dry air, electrifies them, causing the vibration. Because of the surrounding favorable resonant conditions, powerful sound waves are produced which bouncing off the solid ground also cause the dune to vibrate. The sound can be heard from several kilometers away."

The region is one of three within Kazakhstan named in the most recent list of reserves, including Great Altay Transboundary Biosphere Reserve and Karatau Biosphere Reserve.

With UNESCO's latest addition of 23 reserves, there are now 669 biosphere reserves in 120 countries, including 20 transboundary sites.

Unfortunately, along with the good news of the new additions around the world, the United States requested 17 of its Biosphere Reserves be removed from the list.

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