[On World Habitats Day, Rob Sheldon our Head of International Species Recovery, tells us about the amazing Central Asian steppes - I know this is a Special Place and perhaps should be on that blog, but the sociable lapwing is one of our key species recovery birds]

Temperate grasslands and savannas are the least protected biome worldwide with only about 5% within any form of official protected area. The RSPB has been working closely with the Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity in Kazakhstan, ACBK (BirdLife in Kazakhstan), carrying out research and conservation actions for flagship species of the Central Asian steppes.

The steppe grasslands of Kazakhstan are home to a suite of specialist bird species, including black and white-winged larks, demoiselle cranes and the Critically Endangered sociable lapwing. In fact, it is estimated that more than 95% of the world population of this species depends on Kazakh grasslands. We know that maintaining grazing is crucial to provide the short-cropped habitat in which the females lay their eggs (once the vegetation gets too tall and rank it becomes unsuitable).  Because of this, breeding lapwings are strongly associated with villages where the livestock are now concentrated, traditional nomadic grazing methods being replaced by less extensive systems. We also know that sociable lapwing nests are strongly associated with animal dung, maybe due to increased nest camouflage or increased attractiveness to invertebrates.

 Male sociable lapwing (Maxim Koshkin)

But birds are not the only amazing creatures to dwell in the vast steppes. The saiga antelope is an extraordinary animal reliant on grassland habitats, and can eat plants that are poisonous to other animals. Some populations are migratory like their more famous Serengeti cousins. Unfortunately, populations crashed after the collapse of the Soviet Union due to uncontrolled poaching, primarily for the horns, which are in great demand for Asian medicine. Since then, improved protection, including aerial surveys and mobile ranger patrols guided by satellite transmitters attached to saiga (work partly funded by the UK Government), have greatly reduced poaching rates and numbers are now increasing again.

 Female saiga antelope (Rob Sheldon)

Without the vast grassland steppes, species such as sociable lapwing and saiga antelope would disappear. Organisations like ACBK and RSPB are fighting hard to protect these areas. 

So on World Habitats Day celebrate important environments around the globe and Steppe Up for Nature! [that's me, not Rob, adding that – so I fully take the blame for such a corny pun]

 Wild tulips bloom on the steppe in spring (Paul Donald)

You can also find our more on the Amazing Journey website, and from the Saiga Conservation AllianceSwarovski Optik are the Species Champion for the sociable lapwing.  As well as providing the funding that brings threatened birds back from the brink of extinction, Species Champions also draw attention to the plight of the species they support and all the other threatened species the BirdLife Preventing Extinctions Programme embraces.

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