Results from a survey by the Government of Kazakhstan show that saiga antelope populations have bounced back, now at nearly a million animals.
Protecting the steppe and saiga antelope in Kazakhstan
The Altyn Dala Conservation Initiative is a large-scale, long-term effort to preserve and enhance the grassland landscapes of Kazakhstan. Our vision is to reestablish fully functional ecosystems of the steppe, semi-desert, and desert at the historical range of the Kazakh saiga antelope spanning around 700,000 km², which is equal to twice the size of Germany.
Kazakhstan is home to some of the most under-protected biomes globally. These temperate grasslands, winter deserts, and semi-deserts support many endangered species and also feature extensive and important wetlands. Found nowhere else on earth at such scale and in such pristine conditions, these ecosystems allow for large herds of saiga antelope, over 90% of the global population, to complete their long annual migrations.
The large wetlands in the steppes and semi-desert, some of which are listed as UNESCO World Heritage sites, also provide key, globally important stop-over sites for up to 10 million migratory waterbirds a year; equal in importance to the Wadden Sea.
- Project: Altyn Dala Conservation Initiative
- Country: Kazakhstan
- Area Size: 700,000 km² (former range of the Saiga antelope)
- Project leader: Stephanie Ward
- Project start: 2006
Historically saigas have been hunted in Kazakhstan and were an important source of meat. Protecting the species from extinction requires us to work with local communities to promote the importance of the saiga and develop a culture of anti-poaching. FZS and partners regularly conduct seminars, meetings and workshops with the people who live in and around the saiga landscapes, and our ranger teams are comprised of members of the community who signed up to protect the saiga.
In 2010 FZS and partners initiated a network of “Friends of Saiga” clubs in settlements close to saiga habitats. To date, 10 clubs have been established: five in the range of the Ustyurt population, three in the Ural population and two in the Betpak-dala population. The clubs are mainly based in rural schools in remote areas where there is a low standard of living.
Unemployment pushes many inhabitants towards poaching and saigas are often targeted. The clubs teach the children the important role of each species, the peculiarities of the saiga in the steppe ecosystem, and the consequences that uncontrolled poaching of wildlife may have on the whole landscape.
A key part of our work is locating, mapping, justifying the designation and strengthening the management of the most suitable land conservation regimes for our focal areas. From gigantic migration corridors for saiga antelopes, to wetland sanctuaries to Important Bird Areas, FZS and partners work to map, fund and strengthen the efficiency of these areas to conserve biodiversity, and especially a contiguous landscape for saiga migration.
Our ecosystem monitoring work has played a central role in securing more space for wildlife in Kazakhstan. Since we began this work, 4 million hectares of steppe and semi-desert habitat has been protected formally by the government of Kazakhstan. In addition, 340,000 hectares of this habitat is now managed directly by us as the Alty Sai Eco-Park, which intersects with the ecological corridor.
There is still much work to be done on increasing and improving the protected area coverage in our target regions and we are hoping to see new protected areas and corridors established in both the Ural and the Ustyurt saiga populations in the near future. Currently neither one of these two important areas have any formal protection for key sites. It is hoped that the new PAs will add many hundreds of thousands of hectares to the formally designated areas in Kazakhstan that the Altyn Dala Conservation Initiative have been involved in creating.
FZS set up, and provides ongoing support, to three ranger groups patrolling in the area of the Betpak Dala saiga population (the country’s central and largest population) and one ranger group to do the same in the Ustyurt population. These teams are composed of local and regional wildlife experts. They patrol the huge areas of steppe and semi-desert used by the saigas.
SMART (Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool) technology is standard use as an anti-poaching tool and a way to monitor the condition of habitats and a diverse range of species. We provide the ranger teams with specialist equipment and training, such as emergency first aid and conflict mitigation, dash-cams, GPS devices, binoculars, uniforms and vehicles. We also extend support to state rangers of key protected areas through the provision of training and equipment aiming to facilitate a seamless system of protection for these landscapes across the patchwork of land management types.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the agricultural land that the steppe had been converted to was abandoned. Succession began and the steppes restored themselves, enabling steppe species like saiga, and communities of species like small mammals, ground-nesting birds such as larks and sociable lapwings, to recolonize.
Through extensive research and monitoring, FZS and partners understood that these species and habitats needed more space and better protection; a revelation much like Bernhard Grzimek’s after tracking the Serengeti’s great migration from the air 60 years ago. These studies laid the groundwork for securing protection for 4 million hectares of the landscape.
Our monitoring efforts in Kazakhstan bear many similarities with long-term work by FZS in the Serengeti. Since the start of the project we have taken advantage of these synergies; for example a site visit by experts from the Serengeti helped us to optimise our aerial survey methods. We continue to share knowledge and lessons learnt on these two great migrations.
FZS and partners run saiga safaris and birdwatching tours to the Betpak-Dala saiga range in the territory of the Alty-Sai Eco-Park. Alty Sai is comprised of two hunting areas leased by the Altyn Dala Conservation Initiative (ADCI) that are particularly important in terms of saiga calving and migration (340,000ha). No hunting is permitted here, instead they are model territories for wildlife protection and management. Tourism to Alty Sai is an important way to engage with the communities living nearest to the saigas, enabling the saiga spectacle to directly and positively impact the local rural economy, and is a means to help sustainably finance the Eco Park itself.
Several steppe species are threatened by extinction, the most well-known is the saiga antelope. Over the past few decades unsustainable hunting, and poaching to supply demand for saiga horn from the east – where it is used in traditional Chinese medicine – has pushed saiga numbers to a critical low. While more recently, two thirds of the global population was wiped out by a bacterial infection linked to abnormal weather conditions prior to the saiga calving season.
Combating poaching, addressing illegal wildlife trade, and mitigating human impact are some of the conservation measures FZS and partners take to conserve the diverse species range of the steppe. We also carry out targeted scientific research in order to guide our species conservation actions. Iconic species like Asiatic wild ass (kulan) and maybe eventually Przewalski’s horse – formerly abundant in the Altyn Dala region – should return to the grassland landscape to ensure it functions optimally. We are working to make this a reality.
FZS supports the Altyn Dala Conservation Initiative (ADCI) by providing international coordination and strategic leadership input to the wider partnership. FZS has a strong long-term supportive relationship with the Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity of Kazakhstan, who are the national NGO central to all the successes of ADCI. We help them specifically by providing core financing, equipment and technical assistance.
The Altyn Dala Conservation Initiative is spearheaded in Kazakhstan by ACBK with financial and technical support from Fauna & Flora International (FFI), Frankfurt Zoological Society (FZS), and the Royal Society for Protection of Birds, and in partnership with the Kazakh government’s Committee for Forestry and Wildlife, part of the Ministry of Ecology, Geology and Natural Resources.
- Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity of Kazakhstan (ACBK)
- Ministry of Ecology, Geology and Natural Resources of Kazakhstan
- Fauna & Flora International (FFI)
- Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB)
- Ebert Düttmann Stiftung