Steppe between Astana and Arkalky. Photo: Geoff & Hilary Welch
On November 28, the Government of Kazakhstan announced the designation of the new Altyn Dala State Nature Reserve, protecting almost 500,000 hectares of steppe grassland, semi-desert and wetland in central Kazakhstan. This is in addition to a proposed 410,000 ha extension of the Irgiz-Torgai State Nature Reserve and adds a significant piece to the jigsaw of creating an effective network of protected areas in the Altyn Dala ('Golden Steppe') project area.
Altyn Dala is a partnership involving government, NGOs, local communities and the private sector with the key partners being the Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity of Kazakhstan (ACBK, BirdLife in Kazakhstan), the Kazakh government's Committee for Forestry and Hunting, Frankfurt Zoological Society and the RSPB (BirdLife in the United Kingdom).
Steppe has been identified by IUCN as 'the earth's most endangered ecosystem', and the Altyn Dala steppe is of vital importance to safeguard the critically endangered saiga antelope, a migratory species that was driven almost to extinction in Kazakhstan in the 1990s. Numbers of saiga are recovering annually (due to the protection offered) and reached almost 100,000 in 2012. Since 2009, ACBK has been fitting saiga antelopes with satellite collars which have allowed key locations (such as calving and rutting grounds) to be identified. These protected areas also support many other species of national and international conservation importance, from goitered gazelles and steppe pika, to sociable lapwings and red-breasted geese. These new protected areas also provide the basis for exciting planned reintroductions of endangered Przewalski's horses and kulan (wild ass) to the area, restoring a vital part of the historical wildlife community of the vast rolling Kazakh steppes.