Celebrating our successes
Since the Altyn Dala Conservation Initiative began in 2006, we’ve made some amazing progress. While it will be decades before our shared vision is fully realised, there has already been so much for the partners to celebrate.
Together with the government and other national stakeholders, we’ve created several enormous protected areas. We’ve seen saiga numbers rise dramatically. We’ve reintroduced a founding population of kulan to Central Kazakhstan. We’ve set up and trained patrol teams. Our researchers have surveyed huge areas of habitat and the wildlife that uses it. And we’ve connected with local communities, making lots of new saiga friends!
Protected areas established
Since the Initiative began, working alongside the Government of Kazakhstan, we have protected over 5 million hectares of steppe landscape for wildlife – an area larger than Denmark. These State Protected Areas were chosen for their important role in conserving native steppes for saiga population and other key species, as discovered by our field research and aerial surveys.
You cannot privately ‘own’ land in Kazakhstan, so buying an area to create a nature reserve is not possible. But the Kazakh government actively supports new State Protected Areas for a range of priority wildlife species.
Together, we have created several new nature reserves, extended existing ones, and created Kazakhstan’s first wildlife corridor. This wildlife corridor links two of the main reserves: the Altyn Dala State Nature Reserve and the Irgyz-Turgai State Nature Reserve, protecting the saiga migration route between them. The corridor itself adds a further 2 million hectares of land management for wildlife.
In addition to the State Protected Areas, we are taking steps to undertake long-term leasing from the government of a series of large Hunting Areas to create Hunting Reserves that buffer and connect State Protected Areas - Beginning with the Alty Sai Eco-Park since 2009 as another solution to enable wildlife populations to recover.
- 2008 - Existing Korgalzhyn State Nature Reserve expanded by 280,000 ha to over 540,000.
- 2009 - Two hunting areas important to saiga leased (340,000 ha).
- 2012 - Altyn Dala State Nature Reserve established (over 480,000 ha).
- 2014 - Yrgyz-Torgai-Zhylanshyk wildlife corridor established (2 million ha).
- 2016 - Irgyz-Turgai State Nature Reserve expanded by 410,000 ha to nearly 1.2 million ha.
- 2021 - Ulytau National Park established (59,000ha).
- 2022 - Bokey Orda and Ashiozek State Nature Reserves established (over 780,000 ha).
Saiga numbers recovered
The latest aerial surveys in 2023 show that Kazakhstan’s saiga population has increased to over 1.9 million individuals. This is an amazing success for our partnership!
There haven’t been saiga numbers like these for over 30 years. The intense poaching of the 1990s drove the population down to an estimated 20,000 saiga in 2003. Numbers rose to 295,470 as government rangers' work to combat poaching enabled the antelopes to recover. But the population crashed again in 2015 when a bacterial disease killed 200,000 saiga (60% of the population at the time) in just one month.
Thankfully, saiga reproduce quickly, with females beginning to breed at only 8 months old, and often giving birth to twins. The sharp sustained reduction in poaching and the major increases in land protected for nature since the Altyn Dala Conservation Initiative began meant the population was able to respond quickly, increasing 10-fold since the catastrophic 2015 disease outbreak.
Our Initiative has an ambitious plan to reintroduce kulan to Central Kazakhstan, restoring a small population here after an absence of nearly 100 years.
The only kulan in Kazakhstan lived in two protected areas in the south. The larger of these populations had outgrown its habitat but was unable to migrate northwards because mountain ranges and roads blocked its way.
Using cargo helicopters, transport helicopters and trucks we have so far moved 15 kulan from the population in southern Kazakhstan to the Reintroduction Enclosure in central Kazakhstan’s Altyn-Dala State Nature Reserve. The kulan were transported in individual crates, where they could be monitored throughout by a trained veterinarian.
Stress is a large risk for these animals, so some sedation is required. Once a viable population group is created, these animals will be released into the wild.
Free to roam, Kulan will naturally wander vast distances every year, but because they have been absent from central Kazakhstan for so long, no one knows how they will behave and where they will go. We fitted the first-released kulan with satellite collars so we could keep track of their movements. This data will be vital in supporting the population as it expands – and we’re happy to report that it is expanding already, with the first two kulan foals born in 2021 and 2022.
Effective ranger patrol teams in place
Our relationships on the ground throughout the saiga’s wide territory matter. In Kazakhstan there are a variety of state wildlife protection agencies working within protected areas as well as between them, and we work closely with them to increase our joint impact where threats arise.
We have our own rangers, hired and trained from within the local communities. They form three groups patrolling the Alty Sai Ecopark, a 340,000-hectare territory we have leased within the Betpak Dala population in central Kazakhstan. We also have another team of trained experts that make up the monitoring team the Ustyurt population in the west of the country, covering large and difficult terrain on their patrols looking out for threats to saiga, as well as conducting biodiversity monitoring of the area.
Our rangers are trained in using a suite of hi-tech tools to survey the huge terrain, and to gather and analyse data. This includes dashcams, satellite location (GPS) devices, satellite collars to follow wildlife movements, autonomous camera drones, remote camera traps, and the open-source protected areas conservation platform SMART (Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool).
The importance of working together with the state protection agencies cannot be overstated. Kazakhstan is an enormous country and every pair of boots on the ground, working closely with another makes a difference.
The rangers actively protect the saiga populations from poachers, and provide valuable information to inform future conservation efforts.
Border police trained
We are working with Customs and Border Force officials to increase their ability to detect wildlife criminals attempting to cross illegally into China and Russia with poached saiga horns.
This includes providing specialist training and deploying 18 new sniffer dogs trained to identify a series of illegal wildlife products.
Pioneering research underway
To begin to set up protected areas, it’s vital to understand the habitat and the wildlife using it. So the first step for our researchers was to do detailed surveys of some key wildlife species, including steppe eagles, ground squirrels, corsac foxes and many others.
We know that the Kazakh wetlands are important places for migrating birds, but little is known about the other species using this habitat. So we’ve been using a cutting edge technique to detect DNA in water samples and identify the species present.
All of this work helps us establish baselines, from which we can then measure the effectiveness of all the conservation measures we put in place.
The communites are involved and benefitting
Thanks to our combined efforts, the saiga, kulan and other steppe species have lots of new friends across the many rural communities.
Building understanding and support
Our ranger teams are meeting with people living in villages close to all the newly protected areas.
Through an ongoing series of presentations, meetings and workshop discussions, they are explaining the work of the Altyn Dala Conservation Initiative, and exchanging knowledge about how a restored ecosystem can and will benefit both people and wildlife.
Sharing knowledge with schools
We’ve taken groups of children from local schools out into the field to show them steppe wildlife up close, using binoculars and telescopes. Through these excursions, the children get to understand the value of the wildlife around them, and what we are doing to protect it.
We have also created ‘Saiga Friends’ clubs for local children to understand and feel involved in protecting the wildlife they see around them. So far, we are operating 10 clubs among communities close to the three saiga populations.
We have already made great progress, but this is just the beginning. We want you to join us in creating a better future for Altyn Dala landscapes and livelihoods .
A future vision for Altyn Dala
Our shared vision for the project area will take decades of dedicated effort to achieve. Following the success of our partnership’s first 15 years, we are working together right now to create our strategy for the next 30 years.
Our ambition is to restore and maintain healthy functioning steppe grassland, wetland, and desert ecosystems that provide high quality habitats for wildlife, and maintain vital ecological services that benefit rural communities and their lives. To create a place where people and wildlife can co-exist, benefiting each other.
Building on saiga success
While we’ve achieved great success in restoring a healthy population of 1.3 million saiga, these antelopes remain highly vulnerable. They are susceptible to continuing pressures from poaching, habitat loss and fragmentation, disease and climate change.
We will continue working to create conditions where saiga can thrive, lessening pressures on them, and adding new protected areas to ensure they can move safely and freely through their habitat during migration.
Restoring lost species
From the outset, our aim has been to help cornerstone species like the saiga regain sustainable populations in the steppe. It is the activities of these cornerstone species that create a healthy, functional ecosystem.
We are in the process of re-introducing a small population of kulan, but we need to build their numbers further if the population is to be self-sustaining. Our ambition is to bring back other lost herbivores of the steppe: Przewalski’s horse.