Altyn Dala hailed a World Restoration Flagship by the UN

Article by UNEP

The United Nations this month named the initiative among its first 10 World Restoration Flagships. The flagships are recognized for their contributions to the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, a global movement to prevent and reverse the degradation of nature.

The return of the saiga is “one of the world’s great conservation success stories,” said Inger Andersen, the Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). “It is a stellar example of what humanity can do when we act decisively to restore vulnerable ecosystems.”

World Restoration Flagships are eligible to receive funding, advice or promotion from the United Nations. Altyn Dala was recognized on 13 December during a gala that featured actor Edward Norton and other UN Goodwill Ambassadors.

“This is an incredible example of the restorative capabilities of nature,” said Norton.

Restoring balance

Grasslands are among the most degraded ecosystems worldwide, under threat everywhere from Kenya to Canada. The Central Asian steppe is no exception. In the 1970s, when technological approaches were prevailing for land management and food production, huge areas of the steppe were ploughed to create croplands, some of which have since been abandoned in the face of drought and soil erosion.

Tall tussock grasses are spreading on the steppe, raising the risk of wildfires. Photo: UNEP/Darya Kuznetsova

Tall tussock grasses are spreading on the steppe, raising the risk of wildfires. Photo: UNEP/Darya Kuznetsova

For the saiga, a goat-sized antelope with a distinctive large nose, worse was to come. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, unregulated hunting of the saiga for their meat and horns hammered the few remaining populations. In just a decade, their number in Kazakhstan plummeted to about 20,000 from over 1 million.

Some of the biggest remaining expanses of Central Asian steppe are found in Kazakhstan. But the decline of traditional nomadic herding combined with sharp drops in the numbers of saiga and other wild species, such as the wild ass and Przewalski’s horse, left significant areas perilously under-grazed.

Tall tussock grasses are spreading, altering the delicate ecological balance that creates habitat for a host of grassland-adapted plants and animals, and raising the risk of wildfires—a growing hazard to people and wildlife magnified by climate change.

Since 2005, researchers have been working to save the saiga antelope and restore huge swaths of grasslands across Central Asia. Photo: UNEP/Darya Kuznetsova

The Altyn Dala Conservation Initiative is putting things right by re-establishing fully functional ecosystems of the steppe, semi-desert, and desert in the historical range of the saiga, an area spanning over 75 million ha. In the Kazakh language, “altyn dala” means “golden steppe”, reflecting the connection of Kazakhstan’s people to its landscapes.

The Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity in Kazakhstan (ACBK), which leads the initiative, is working with government authorities and international partners on science and legislation that has enabled Kazakhstan to establish new protected areas and ecological corridors. The government also banned saiga hunting.

People and wildlife

The antelopes responded positively, with their Kazakh population recovering to nearly 300,000 by 2015 from 50,000 in 2005. But an outbreak of disease decimated the herds, highlighting their continued vulnerability. Since then, the antelope have again flourished.

Other threatened species are also benefiting. Wild asses are being reintroduced, while the low vegetation of the healthy steppe provides good breeding conditions for bird species, including the steppe eagle and the critically endangered sociable lapwing.

The Altyn Dala Conservation Initiative Is re-establishing fully functional ecosystems of the steppe, semi-desert, and desert in an area spanning over 75 million ha. Photo: UNEP/Darya Kuznetsova

Altyn Dala is not only about wildlife. The conservation effort has created hundreds of government jobs in remote rural areas, and activities connected to the new national parks has buoyed local economies. ACBK runs a mobile school outreach programme, providing classroom materials and field trips to help students learn about nature. A budding ecotourism industry is creating demand for local services, including catering and accommodation.

The initiative also works with local herders, who can still graze livestock in parts of the protected areas, to sustainably manage the grasslands – and their large carbon stocks – and avoid potential conflicts as saiga numbers recover.

With scientists learning more about what makes these ecosystems tick, the World Restoration Flagship in Kazakhstan is an example of the perseverance and teamwork needed to make large-scale restoration a success, say those involved.

“Our initiative is about partnership,” says Vera Voronova, ACBK’s Executive Director. “There are not many examples of governments and civil society organizations managing a programme with the very same goal, and the same vision for more than 10 years. This programme is about long-term sustainability.”

About the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration

The UN General Assembly has declared the years 2021 through 2030 the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. Led by UNEP and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN together with the support of partners, it is designed to prevent, halt, and reverse the loss and degradation of ecosystems worldwide. It aims at reviving billions of hectares, covering terrestrial as well as aquatic ecosystems. A global call to action, the UN Decade draws together political support, scientific research, and financial muscle to massively scale up restoration.

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