Rare equines take first steppes to repopulate central Kazakhstan

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The first group of kulan that were captured in a corral in Altyn Emel National Park. 
The first group of kulan who were captured in a corral in Altyn Emel National Park. © John Linnell, NINA

A group of rare Kulan – Asiatic wild asses – are roaming the central steppes of Kazakhstan for the first time in more than a century.

Kulan once ranged across the Middle East and Central Asia – from the Mediterranean to the east of Mongolia. During the last two centuries, their range has been dramatically reduced to less than 3% of their former stomping ground. Although the species is doing relatively well in Mongolia, the Central Asian subspecies is classified as endangered and persists only in small isolated populations in Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

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

One of the adult female kulan has been anaesthetised, equipped with a GPS collar and blood sampled. After waking up, she was loaded into a box for transport. 
One of the adult female kulan has been anaesthetised, equipped with a GPS collar and blood sampled. After waking up, she was loaded into a box for transport. © Daniel Rosengren FZS

Late last month the first group of nine animals was released into an acclimatisation enclosure on the edge of the Altyn Dala protected area in central Kazakhstan. As part of the “Kulanstep” project, the animals were flown 1200km by helicopter from Altyn Emel National Park in the southeast of the country, and will be released in early spring. This is the first step in a multi-year project that aims to restore the full range of large herbivores to this unique area of steppe habitat.

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 reduced their populations. Today, they are confined to less than 3% of their former global distribution range.

The green circle shows where the kulan have been taken to repopulate the central steppes of Kazakhstan.
The green circle shows where the kulan have been taken to repopulate the central steppes of Kazakhstan.

The current project aims to move up to 40 kulan from Altyn Emel to the central steppes during the next three to four years. The initial relocation of the nine kulan was a pilot project to test the methodology and logistics of animal capture, handling, transport and release, said Petra Kaczensky, a research scientist from the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research (NINA) who is co-coordinating the project.

Offloading the kulan after their long helicopter flight.
Offloading the kulan after their long helicopter flight. © Daniel Rosengren FZS

Steffen Zuther, project leader of the Altyn Dala Conservation Initiative, said the approach to use a corral for capture, chemical immobilisation for handling, a helicopter for transport, and a large acclimatisation enclosure at the release site worked well. “For future years we will do a bit of fine-tuning,” he said.

A range of circumstances had created the opportunity to conserve the species in Kazakhstan, including funding becoming available from the Fondation Segré and Nuremberg Zoo. As well, the population of kulan in Altyn Emel National Park has grown to such an extent that the park now has a surplus of animals that can be used to found additional populations. Finally, the ongoing social and economic changes following the collapse of the Soviet Union is another, creating a vast area of available habitat in the central part of the country almost devoid of people and livestock which is currently home to the world’s second largest population of saiga antelope. This area is subject to the “Altyn Dala Conservation Initiative”.

A kulan foal takes its first steps to freedom in its new home in Altyn Dala in central Kazakhstan. 
A kulan foal takes its first steps to freedom in its new home in Altyn Dala in central Kazakhstan. © Daniel Rosengren FZS

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.

The capture corral in Altyn Emel national park. The group of 11 animals was captured on the first night, and the group of 43 was captured on the second night. This modern example is based on a design that has been used for capturing wild animals in the middle east and central Asia for millennia.
The capture corral in Altyn Emel national park. The group of 11 animals was captured on the first night, and the group of 43 was captured on the second night. This modern example is based on a design that has been used for capturing wild animals in the middle east and central Asia for millennia. © NINA
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