This year, I have been slightly obsessing about the need to protect the best wildlife areas. At times in the UK, if we are lucky, we talk about protecting a few hundred hectares. Other countries sometimes have the opportunity of thinking on a grander scale. Here is a grand-daddy of an example from my colleagues Stephanie Ward and Geoff Welch...
Imagine standing in an endless sea of gently waving grass dotted with red poppies, red and yellow tulips, yellow and blue irises and white milk vetch, listening to a cacophony of lark song or the high pitched whistle of a bobak marmot, steppe eagles soaring overhead and no sign of human presence as far as the eye can see – this is ‘Altyn Dala’ in spring.
Altyn Dala, which translates from Kazakh as the ‘Golden Steppe’, is one of the most ambitious and breathtaking species and habitat conservation projects that the RSPB are involved in, indeed the scale is unprecedented in the world.
The Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity of Kazakhstan (ACBK, BirdLife Kazakhstan), the Government of Kazakhstan Forestry and Hunting Committee, Frankfurt Zoological Society and the RSPB together form the Altyn Dala Conservation Initiative (ADCI) which is working to conserve 50 million hectares (ha) of steppe grassland in central Kazakhstan – that’s an area the size of France!
The steppes themselves are of global importance, and one of the least protected habitats in the world. They support a huge diversity of wildlife from breeding sociable lapwings and black larks to millions of migrating waterbirds, from desert monitors to Horsfield’s tortoises and from the little known desert dormouse to the enigmatic, if somewhat bizarre looking, saiga antelope.
Working on 50 million ha at once is impractical so most activities have concentrated on the Irgyz-Turgai-Zhylanshyk (ITZ) pilot area which covers a ‘mere’ 5 million ha but encompasses the former range of the Betpak-Dala saiga antelope population, the largest population in Kazakhstan. And it is work on saiga, combining good old fashioned fieldwork with state of the art technology, that is bringing the conservation of this outstanding area one step closer to success.
Saiga antelope is the flagship species for steppe conservation in Kazakhstan as over one million animals formerly grazed the grasslands maintaining a rich mosaic of vegetation. Heavy poaching in the 1990s brought the species to the edge of extinction with perhaps less than 30,000 surviving. But as the result of groundbreaking research by ACBK, close collaboration with the RSPB and the government anti-poaching authority, called ‘Okhotzooprom’, the Betpak-Dala population had increased to 150,000 in 2013 and the trend is continuing upwards.
However, conserving saiga antelope is not straightforward as they undertake an annual migration covering an area of several million hectares - declaring all of this as protected areas is clearly impractical, even by Kazakh standards. Therefore a landscape scale approach to conservation is required and this is at the heart of the ADCI – to establish an effective network of sites reintroducing and conserving key species and an ecologically representative selection of steppe and semi-desert ecosystems.
To understand their migration, ACBK have successfully fitted satellite transmitters to over 40 saiga antelope since 2009 and as a result have mapped how they use the steppe grassland. This has highlighted their major migration routes, as well as vitally important calving and wintering areas.
By combining this information with the results of biodiversity and socio-economic surveys and overlapping the data with the current protected areas network, ACBK have been able to identify new areas for protected area designation. Based on ACBK’s recommendations, in November 2012 the Kazakh government established a new protected area – the Altyn Dala State Reservat covering 489,776 ha – and announced its intention to extend the Irgyz-Turgai State Reservat by 410,000 ha.
Of even more significance, though, is that by using its data in the MARXAN computer programme, ACBK has been able to identify land suitable for an ecological corridor to link these two Reservats to provide safe migration routes for saiga antelopes and other wildlife - The 'Yrgyz-Torgai-Zhylanshyk’ wildlife corridor was officially declared by the Kazakh Government in July 2014, as the first ever ecological corridor in Kazakhstan, based on new legislation developed by our project partners and the UNDP. This corridor alone is just over 2 million hectares in area - just bigger than Wales!
The area now under protection is a staggering 3.67 million ha and consists of a combination of state protected areas, commercially managed hunting areas and privately managed land, each with their own management objectives and activities.
The RSPB has provided technical expertise to develop a mechanism for combining these different interests to produce an integrated land management plan for the area as a whole that will deliver both conservation and economic benefits, especially in terms of sustainable hunting. This is the first operational ecological corridor in Kazakhstan and it is hoped it will become the template for the establishment of other integrated management areas elsewhere in the country and, potentially, beyond.
There are additional reasons to be jubilant about this corridor being established. Kazakhstan’s state-owned oil company requested permission to conduct exploration work on the territory of the state nature reservat "Altyn Dala".
The request was rejected due to the existing reserve, but a new request by the oil company proposed areas around the reserves, on the proposed corridor area, which was at that time still awaiting official designation. ACBK and UNDP lobbied hard to get the corridor officially approved in order that the second request could be similarly rejected, which it was. A great success!
With these lands secured, the next steps for Altyn Dala are to re-establish self-sustaining populations of other original large steppe grazing herbivores - Przewalski’s horse, wild ass (kulan) and goitered gazelle – To gain a better understanding of the role of the little known ‘steppe’ wolf in maintaining healthy populations of saiga antelopes – to identify and protect the other missing pieces of this enormous conservation puzzle - And finally to ensure that all these truly incredible areas, their rich wildlife and local communities can be sustained economically in the long term.
Absolutely fantastic, all involved deserve a medal. I always say the RSPB's expertise is too good to be limited just to the UK.
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