NUR-SULTAN – The KulanSteppe pilot project, launched in 2017, aims to increase the kulan population in central Kazakhstan, which is one of the flagship species of steppe fauna, says Norwegian Institute scientist Petra Kaczensky Nature Research Institute (NINA), which is working on the project.
KulanSteppe contributes to the recovery of new species and the conservation of biodiversity. Kulan is an important species in the steppe ecosystem along with Przhevalsky’s horse and Saiga antelope, the scientist explained.
“We are facing the loss of species and biodiversity. It would be a great success story (reintroducing the kulan). Regionally, it is a subspecies or ecotype type of the Asian wild ass (kulan), which is listed as endangered (according to the List Red from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature), ”she said.
The project is coordinated by NINA and is part of a larger project of Altyn Dala Conservation Initiative (ADCI), which is a joint initiative of the Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity in Kazakhstan (ACBK), Committee of Forests and the fauna of Kazakhstan. Ministry of Agriculture, Fauna & Flora International, Frankfurt Zoological Society (FZS) and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB). ADCI focuses on the protection of Kazakhstan’s grasslands and its habitats, one of which is the conservation of the Saiga of the Betpak-Dala population.
“Kazakhstan is the country of the Saiga, but in this region there are other species of antelope like the kulan and the Przhevalsky horse. By re-establishing this kind of whole large assemblage in this steppe, we can hope for one thing to increase the functionality of the steppe and have more species to defend the protection of this ecosystem, ”Kaczensky said.
The scientist also spoke of the importance of the steppe ecosystem for carbon storage.
“It’s a very important type of ecosystem and there aren’t many steppes left in the world. In addition, we always focus on forests for carbon storage, but these grassy steppe ecosystems are extremely important for carbon storage. We are essentially raising the recognition of this ecosystem, ”she added.
Kulan became extinct in Kazakhstan in the 1930s, but their reintroduction already took place in the 1950s. The only kulan population that survived in the territory of the former Soviet Union until the 1950s was in Badkhyz, Turkmenistan. Scientists first reintroduced them to Barsa Kelmes in the Aral Sea, but due to the shrinking of the Aral Sea their population collapsed. The next place for the reintroduction was Altyn Emel, where the animals have multiplied and continue to live until now.
“This is because Kulan was totally irradiated in the territory of the former Soviet Union, including the Central Asian republics. The only remaining population was in Badkhyz, in south-eastern Turkmenistan. They disappeared because of competition with livestock and hunting. Plus, with all this infrastructure development, these species have practically lost their habitat, ”Kaczensky said.
Today Barsa-Kelmes Nature Reserve and Altyn Emel National Park have approximately 500 and 3,000 kulan species, respectively. Their numbers are still relatively low as they represent less than one percent of the species’ former range in the region. The KulanSteppe project therefore aims to increase the kulan population in the central part of Kazakhstan, the Torgai Steppe, which is strategically located in a protected area at the crossroads of ecological corridors.
“The whole central part of Kazakhstan is basically still pretty much empty of this species. The idea is to bring them to the Torgai steppe to try to strengthen the population there, ”said the scientist.
The Torgai Steppe has the infrastructure, built from the funds of the Nuremberg Zoo, which includes a field station and two acclimatization enclosures. These were originally prepared for Przhevalsky’s horse, but due to a delay caused by the inclusion of horses on the red list of species in Kazakhstan, the project instead focused on the kulan.
“The ACBK (Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity of Kazakhstan) and the FZS followed this idea with the reintroduction of the horse. They got funding, also interest from the zoos to put money, especially the Nuremberg Zoo, which gave money to build the facilities in the Torgai steppe, then Alibi (field station) for reintroduction of horses on condition that Przhevalsky’s horse needs to be placed on the red list of species in Kazakhstan. Because without registration there is no legal basis to bring the species there, ”Kaczensky said.
The implementation of the KulanSteppe project started in 2017 after confirmation of funding from the Swiss Segre Foundation and a feasibility study conducted by Kaczensky and the KulanSteppe team. This was a pilot project to test the process of reintroducing kulan to the region. In 2017, the team airlifted the first nine kulans to the Torgai Steppe from Altyn Emel National Park, 1,300 kilometers away. Two more kulans were brought in in 2019.
“What is generally the case is that people always think that if species go missing, it’s an easy solution… It’s never easy. On the one hand, they are wild animals, so you have no idea of their behavior, of their state of health… They probably live with that for 20 years, but if you put them in a box and then in a helicopter… it is extremely stressful. for a wild animal, ”said the scientist.
The project encountered organizational and logistical challenges which affected the work process and the results. Time is a scarce resource for projects like this, Kaczensky pointed out.
“From a logistical point of view, an operation like this is complicated. In Kazakhstan, there were a lot of different people… A helicopter is waiting, we must continue. So rather than transporting 18 kulans, we could only do nine, ”she said.
“That’s why it was a pilot phase, looking at the possibilities, seeing where the difficulties were and I think we have shown that it can be done. But it also needs strong support from the government, ”she added.
Due to difficulties related to the pandemic, the project is on hold, but the KulanSteppe team considers affordable and one of the most efficient means of implementing the project, especially when it comes to transporting animals.
“What fascinated me about this project is that there is a huge potential for recovery in Kazakhstan. Because you have these great outdoors and there is habitat there … It has been over a hundred years since the last Kulan was there. That’s kind of what motivates you to do that, ”the scientist concluded.
Learn more about the project https://bit.ly/3Du8hEk, kulanstep.wordpress.com and https://bit.ly/38qo34S.