Balancing trade-offs between agriculture and biodiversity in the steppes of Kazakhstan
  • Schrenck’s Tulip Tulipa schrenckii. (photo: Ruslan Urazaliev)
    Schrenck’s Tulip Tulipa schrenckii. (photo: Ruslan Urazaliev)


    Grassland ecosystems harbour unique biodiversity, but agriculture has led to their widespread degradation and conversion, especially in the temperate zone. However, opportunities for restoration and for reconciling agricultural production and conservation goals are emerging in some temperate grasslands.

    This is especially so on the steppes of Kazakhstan, where the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 triggered the widespread abandonment of cropping and grazing systems. Abandoned lands constitute considerable untapped agricultural potential, which is likely to be exploited in the near future, yet would also allow for restoring steppe ecosystems. Balancing the potentially conflicting goals of conservation and agricultural production is currently hampered by a poor understanding of (1) the spatial patterns of post-Soviet land-use change, (2) the complex interactions of cropland abandonment, grazing, fire regimes and biodiversity, and (3) various potential future trajectories in land use.

    Huge contiguous areas of wheat crops stretch from horizon to horizon. (photos: Johannes Kamp)
    Huge contiguous areas of wheat crops stretch from horizon to horizon. (photos: Johannes Kamp)

    In BALTRAK, we have quantified spatio-temporal trends in land use and fire in Kazakhstan, to understand the links between land use, fire, and biodiversity, and explored potentials for increasing agricultural production. We use our results to assess current and future trade-offs between steppe restoration and agricultural production. Together, this provides guidance for implementing place-based rural development strategies that lessen the emerging land-use conflict between conservation and agriculture in Kazakhstan’s steppe region. Our interdisciplinary approach relies on remote sensing, field- based biodiversity research, and econometric modelling. We integrate major stakeholders in agriculture and the conservation sector to ensure the relevance and implementation of our results. A strong focus is placed on capacity building among Kazakhstani stakeholders and scientists, and on academic exchange with young Kazakhstani scholars.

    Fruiting feather grass turns the Kazakh steppe into an ocean of liquid silver in late May. (photo: Johannes Kamp)
    Fruiting feather grass turns the Kazakh steppe into an ocean of liquid silver in late May. (photo: Johannes Kamp)
  • Study area. (Click to enlarge) The red frames depict 11 Landsat scenes selected for the remote-sensing analyses. Agricultural and biophysical data has been collected in 14 raions (districts) across Kostanai and Akmola oblasts (marked in black). Biodiversity surveys will cover the entire region.
    Study area. (Click to enlarge) The red frames depict 11 Landsat scenes selected for the remote-sensing analyses. Agricultural and biophysical data has been collected in 14 raions (districts) across Kostanai and Akmola oblasts (marked in black). Biodiversity surveys will cover the entire region.

    Study region

    BALTRAK focuses on Kostanai and Akmola provinces in Kazakhstan. This study region was chosen as it covers a large gradient from the dry steppes and semi-deserts in the South mainly used as pasture to intensive cropping systems in the North (meadow steppe). It also contains an east-west steppe vegetation gradient, and data from previous research in the area exist that can be incorporated into BALTRAK analyses.

  • Work packages

    BALTRAK is structured into five work packages:

    • WP 1: Mapping post-Soviet land-use and land-cover change

      Landscape mosaic
      Landscape mosaic

      In this work package, we used Landsat images to reconstruct land-use and land-cover changes since the collapse of the Soviet Union. We generated fine-scale, multi-seasonal image composites using 30m resolution Landsat TM/ETM/8 data for circa 1990, 2000 and 2014. Based on this, post-Soviet land-use change (1990–2014) in croplands and pastures was mapped. We also quantify spatiotemporal patterns of fires for the study area using MODIS and Landsat images.

    • WP 2: Assessing agricultural production potentials

      Interviews with local land-users
      Interviews with local land-users

      We use governmental agricultural statistics to estimate the extent of cultivated areas for major crops and livestock at fine spatial scales since 1990, and to map post-Soviet changes in major indicators of land-use intensity (crop and livestock production). Future agricultural potentials are currently identified and mapped, and potential effects of alternative scenarios on future agricultural production assessed.

    • WP 3: Understanding biodiversity interactions with land use and fire

      Steppe Eagle (Aquila nipalensis)
      Steppe Eagle (Aquila nipalensis)

      We have been evaluating the effect of past, current and future land-use patterns on vegetation successional trajectories and key ecosystem processes. Also, the impact of changes in land use and fire regimes on bird, mammal, and plant diversity, abundance and distribution has been assessed. The results of WP1, 2 and 3 are used for systematic conservation planning, i.e. the identification of optimal regions for new protected areas in Kazakhstan.

    • WP 4: Assessing current and likely future trade-offs between biodiversity and agriculture


      In this work package, current trade-offs between food production and biodiversity were quantified by identifying agricultural production and conservation goals that would balance competing land-use options. Equally important, priority areas for agriculture (cropping and grazing) and biodiversity conservation were mapped in a stakeholder dialogue.

    • WP 5: Capacity building, stakeholder involvement, dissemination and project management

      This ‘framework’ package serves to facilitate effective project coordination and capture synergies. It aims to maximize project outreach by synthesizing, communicating and implementing the scientific results. Also, intensive training during fieldwork and data analysis is provided to young Kazakh scholars to increase their capacity.

  • Partners

    BALTRAK is realized by a consortium of two Kazakh and three German partners.

    Logo Wwu 180The Biodiversity and Ecosystem Research Group at Münster University (Institute of Landscape Ecology) coordinates the project and pushes synthesis of the results. They lead the work on biodiversity surveys (Johannes Kamp) and steppe restoration (Norbert Hölzel).

    Logo Acbk H90The Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity in Kazakhstan (ACBK), the leading environmental NGO in Kazakhstan and an independent research institute, is the main local partner. The project is coordinated by Alyona Koshkina and Sergey Sklyarenko. ACBK staff and students have collected field data and spent extended period at the German partner institutions. ACBK also leads on the implementation of project results and Protected Area planning.

    Logo Huberlin H90The Biogeography and Conservation Biology Lab of Humboldt University Berlin (Tobias Kuemmerle and Matthias Baumann) is responsible for the remote sensing work, species distribution modelling and trade-off analyses (the latter together with Uni Münster and ACBK).

    Logo Iamo H90The Leibniz Institute of Agricultural Development in Transition Economies (IAMO) estimates agricultural potentials and conduct econometric modelling. Daniel Müller and Florian Schierhorn lead this work package.

    Logo Karaganda H90The University of Karaganda, Department of Geography, has been selecting Kazakhstani MSc students and interns to be trained in the project, and also used their wide-ranging stakeholder contacts during the implementation of the project results. This work is led by Aidar Aitkulov.

  • Info

    Project Duration

    BALTRAK will be running from 01.01.2015 until 31.01.2019.


    Logo Volkswagenstiftung

    BALTRAK is funded by a grant of the VolkswagenFoundation.
    Project summary


    For general enquiries, please contact the project coordinator Johannes Kamp. For more specific questions, you might also want to get into contact with the leaders of the work packages (see ‘Partners’ tab).


    Palpurina S, Chytrı M, Hölzel N, Tichý L, Wagner V, Horsák M, Axmanová I, Hajek M, Hájková P, Freitag M, Lososová Z, Mathar W, Tzonev R, Danihelka J, Dřevojan P (2018, in press) The type of nutrient limitation affects the plant species richness–productivity relationship: evidence from dry grasslands across Eurasia. Journal of Ecology [doi: 10.1111/1365-2745.13084], [BES blog story with images from fieldwork in Kazakhstan]

    Dara A, Baumann M, Kuemmerle T, Pflugmacher D, Rabe A, Griffiths P, Hölzel N, Kamp J, Freitag M, Hostert P (2018): Mapping the timing of cropland abandonment and recultivation in northern Kazakhstan using annual Landsat time series. Remote Sensing of Environment 213: 49–60 [doi:10.1016/j.rse.2018.05.005]

    Palpurina S, Wagner V, von Wehrden H, Hájek M, Hórsak M, Brinkert A, Hölzel N, Wesche K, Kamp J, Hájková P, Danihelka J, Lustyk P, Merunková K, Preislerová Z, Kočí M, Kubešová,  S, Cheresov M, Ermakov N, German D, Gogoleva P, Lashchynsky N, Martynenko V, Chytrý M (2017) The relationship between plant species richness and soil pH vanishes with increasing aridity across Eurasian dry grasslands. Global Ecology and Biogeography 26 (4): 425–434 [doi:10.1111/geb.12549]

    Brinkert A, Hölzel N, Sidorova TV, Kamp J (2016) Spontaneous steppe restoration on abandoned cropland in Kazakhstan: grazing affects successional pathways. Biodiversity and Conservation 25 (12): 2543–2561 [doi: 10.1007/s10531-015-1020-7]

    Horion S, Prishchepov AV, Verbesselt J, de Beurs K, Tagesson T, Fensholt R (2016) Revealing turning points in ecosystem functioning over the Northern Eurasian agricultural frontier. Global Change Biology 22 (8): 2801-2817 [doi: 10.1111/gcb.13267]

    Kamp J, Koshkin MA, Bragina, Katzner TE, Milner-Gulland EJ, Schreiber D, Sheldon R, Shmalenko A, Smelansky I, Terraube J, Urazaliev R (2016) Persistent and novel threats to the biodiversity of Kazakhstan’s steppes and semi-deserts. Biodiversity and Conservation 25 (12): 2521–2541 [doi:10.1007/s10531-016-1083-0]

    Lameris T, Fijen T, Urazaliev R, Pulikova G, Donald PF, Kamp J (2016) Breeding ecology of the endemic Black Lark Melanocorypha yeltoniensis on natural steppe and abandoned croplands in post-Soviet Kazakhstan. Biodiversity and Conservation 25 (12): 2381–2400 [doi:10.​1007/​s10531-015-1041-2] Open access paper

    Meyfroidt P, Schierhorn F, Prishchepov AV, Müller D, Kuemmerle T (2016) Drivers, constraints and trade-offs associated with recultivating abandoned cropland in Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan. Global Environmental Change 37:1–15 [doi:10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2016.01.003]

    Wesche K, Ambarli D, Török P, Kamp J, Treiber J, Dengler J (2016) The Palaearctic steppe biome: a new synthesis. Biodiversity and Conservation 25 (12): 2197–2231 [doi: 10.1007/s10531-016-1214-7]

    Kamp J, Urazaliev R, Balmford A, Donald PF, Green RE, Lamb A, Phalan B (2015) Agricultural development and the conservation of avian biodiversity on the Eurasian steppes: a comparison of land-sparing and land-sharing approaches. Journal of Applied Ecology 52 [doi: 10.1111/1365-2664.12527]

    Kraemer R, Prishchepov AV, Müller D, Kuemmerle T, Radeloff VC, Dara A, Terekhov A, Frühauf M (2015) Long-term agricultural land-cover change and potential for cropland expansion in the former Virgin Lands area of Kazakhstan. Environmental Research Letters 10 (5), 054012 [doi:10.1088/1748-9326/10/5/054012]

    Adaptation for Russian-language readers: Крэмер Р, Прищепов АВ, Мюллер Д, Кюммерле Т, Раделофф В, Дара А, Терехов А, Фрюхауф М (2015) Анализ длительной динамики изменения землепользования и потенциал расширения пахотных земель за счет заброшенных земель в регионе освоения Целинных Земель Казахстан. Earth from Space – the Most Effective Solutions. 2015 Vol. 20 Download. Open access paper.