News article

Kulan reintroduction to the Steppe of Central Kazakhstan

Publisert 06.02.2017

A step towards restoring the full faunal assemblage of the Eurasian steppe within the frames of the Altyn Dala Conservation Initiative. 

Photo: PA Okhotzooprom
Photo: PA Okhotzooprom

A new project, KULANSTEP, aims to repopulate the central steppe of Kazakhstan with kulan. The project will transport kulan from the large population in Altyn Emel National Park in southeastern Kazakhstan to a release site on the ~60,000 km² Torgai steppe, strategically located in a network of protected areas, ecological corridors, and hunting areas.

The long term aim of the project is to greatly increase population size and range of kulan in Central Asia and provide a catalyst for kulan conservation actions across the region.

Key species gone extinct

Temperate grasslands are considered the most altered and endangered biome on the planet. They are home to a unique assemblage of large, charismatic mammals, many of which are migratory and endangered. One of those is the Asiatic wild ass (Equus hemionus), also known as kulan, one of seven species in the equid family.

Kulan, was once a key species in the assemblage of large herbivores (along with saiga antelope, several gazelle species and Przewalski`s horses) that ranged the Eurasian steppes, stretching from the eastern shores of the Mediterranean to Mongolia. Kulan are highly mobile ungulates adapted to life in open habitats. Unlike horses, kulan live in open groups with variable composition, where the only stable unit is the mare and her foal. In the past, large herds of kulan roamed the Eurasian Steppes, but overhunting and habitat conversion decimated their populations, and nowadays they have become confined to <3% of their former global distribution range. The situation is particularly critical for the Central Asian subspecies (E. h. kulan and E. h. onager) accordingly listed as “Endangered” on the IUCN Red List. In Kazakhstan the species became extinct in the 1930s, but reintroduction initiatives already started in the early 1950s. Today, kulan are again found in two separate locations in south-western and south-eastern Kazakhstan. The population around Barsa Kelmes, once an island in the Aral Sea, is currently estimated at close to 500 kulan and the one in Altyn Emel National Park at >3000.

A new window of opportunity for return

Although kulan are again present in the Kazakhstan they have not even reclaimed 1% of their former range and remain totally absent from the central steppe.

With the breakdown of the Soviet Union, large parts of the central steppe – an area equal to the size of France – have become almost devoid of people and livestock. This situation has created an almost unique opportunity for landscape-level biodiversity conservation and species recovery.

A new project will transport kulan from the large population in Altyn Emel National Park in southeastern Kazakhstan to a release site on the ~60,000 km² Torgai steppe, strategically located in a network of protected areas, ecological corridors, and hunting areas.

The long term aim of the project is to greatly increase population size and range of kulan in Central Asia and provide a catalyst for kulan conservation actions across the region.

The project is an important step towards restoring the full faunal assemblage of the Eurasian steppe and is expected to also pave the way for the reintroduction of Przewalski's horse (and support ongoing conservation initiatives focusing on saiga antelope . 

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The project will bring kulan from a reintroduced population in Altyn Emel National Park in SE Kazakhstan to a release site on the Torgai steppe, strategically located in a network of protected areas, ecological corridors, and hunting areas managed by the partner organization in Kazakhstan. The infrastructure at the release site includes a field station and two acclimatization enclosures.

KULANSTEP

KULANSTEP is coordinated by the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research (NINA), and implemented by the Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity of Kazakhstan (ACBK) in partnership with the Committee of Forestry and Wildlife (CFW) of the Ministry of Agriculture of Kazakhstan, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), Frankfurt Zoological Society (FZS), and Nuremberg Zoo. Main funding is provided by the Fondation Segré and Nuremberg Zoo.

The kulan reintroduction project is firmly embedded in the ongoing wider conservation activities of the Altyn Dala Conservation Initiative (ADCI), which is a joint initiative of the Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity in Kazakhstan (ACBK), the Committee of Forestry and Wildlife of the Ministry of Agriculture of Kazakhstan, Fauna & Flora International, Frankfurt Zoological Society, and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.

Contact:

Petra Kaczensky

John Linnell

Project site: http://www.nina.no/english/Research/KULANSTEP

 

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