Ecotourism is still finding its feet in Kazakhstan, but, with the country's great wealth of varied natural attractions, it surely has a bright future. Your first stop should be the Ecotourism Information Resource Centre (EIRC) in Almaty (see pi 17) - it's a good idea to look at its website when you're planning your Kazakhstan trip. The helpful, English-speaking EIRC is the focal point for community-based ecotourism in Kazakhstan, providing travellers with information, bookings and organisational help for visiting half-a-dozen ecotourism programmes around the country.

These programmes, situated in some of the country's most attractive natural areas, offer welcoming homestays with local families, guided hikes, treks and horse rides, and a variety of other activities from bird-, animal- and plant-spotting to concerts of traditional Kazakh music and even fcumys-making sessions. At some sites you can spend your nights in yurts. Average homestay prices are US$25 to US$30 per person per night including three meals - pretty good value. You'll typically spend about the same again on guides, park fees, horses, vehicle transfers and other expenses. Top sites:

Aksu-Dzhabagly Nature Reserve (p146) Beautiful mountain country at the northwest extremity of the Tian Shan, with high biodiversity.

Sayram-Ugam National Park (p147) Near Aksu-Dzhabagly, with similar attractions. Lepsinsk (pi39) Quaint village at the foot of Zhungar Alatau mountains: great hikes and rides. Korgalzhyn Nature Reserve (p165) Steppe lakes and exciting bird-watching; the world's most northerly flamingo habitat.

Kokshetau (pi66) Village life, walks and rides amid unspoiled northern countryside with lakes, woodlands and rocky hills.

Some sites including Lepsinsk are in border zones which require a special permit that can take a month or more to get. Plan ahead!

Caspian is the source of 90% of the world's caviar, yet catches of all types of sturgeon have dropped dramatically since 1990, as over-harvesting, water pollution and poaching all take their toll. Caviar yields for Kazakh fishing boats have dwindled to almost nothing. There's also concern for the endemic Caspian seal: outbreaks of disease and death among the seal population in recent years have been blamed partly on sea pollution.