Kulan to repopulate the central steppe of Kazakhstan

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Plans are afoot to expand the range of the endangered kulan. Photo: PA Okhotzooprom
Plans are afoot to expand the range of the endangered kulan. Photo: PA Okhotzooprom

A new project aims to repopulate the central steppe of Kazakhstan with kulan, also known as the Asiatic wild ass.

The project, call KULANSTEP, will transport kulan from a larger population in Altyn Emel National Park in southeastern Kazakhstan to a release site on the 60,000-square-kilometer Torgai steppe, which is strategically located in a network of protected areas and ecological corridors.

The long-term aim of the wider conservation effort is to greatly increase the population size and range of kulan in Central Asia and provide a catalyst for further kulan conservation efforts across the region.

Temperate grasslands are considered the most altered and endangered biome on the planet. They are home to a unique assemblage of large 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.

The kulan was once a key species among large herbivores – along with saiga antelope, several gazelle species and the Przewalski’s horse – that ranged the Eurasian steppes, stretching from the eastern shores of the Mediterranean to Mongolia.

Kulan today occupy only a fraction of their original range. Photo: Petra Kaczensky
Kulan today occupy only a fraction of their original range. Photo: Petra Kaczensky

Kulan are highly mobile ungulates adapted to life in open habitats. Unlike horses, they 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. Today, they are confined to less than 3% of their former global distribution range.

The situation is particularly critical for the Central Asian subspecies (Equus hemionus kulan and Equus hemionus onager), formally listed as endangered. In Kazakhstan, the species became extinct in the 1930s, but reintroduction initiatives had already started in the early 1950s.

Today, kulan are again found in two separate locations in southwestern and southeastern Kazakhstan. The population around Barsa Kelmes, once an island in the Aral Sea, is now estimated at close to 500 and the one in Altyn Emel National Park has topped 3000.

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.

Kulan once roamed a vast area.
Kulan once roamed a vast area, shown in yellow.

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 a unique opportunity for landscape-level biodiversity conservation and species recovery.

KULANSTEP is coordinated by the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research, and implemented by the Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity of Kazakhstan in partnership with the Committee of Forestry and Wildlife of the Ministry of Agriculture of Kazakhstan, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Frankfurt Zoological Society, 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, which is a joint initiative of the Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity in Kazakhstan, 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.

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