Four Kulans for Alibi
Last November, we transported Kulans (Asiatic wild ass) to the Torgai steppe in central Kazakhstan for the third time. Veterinary student from Frankfurt Zoological Society, Anne Dohrmann supported this translocation. In freezing temperatures, she spent many weeks at the remote reintroduction site and ranger station “Alibi” to observe the new arrivals.
2nd November 2022, 3:14 p.m., Torgai Steppe, Kazakhstan, -2°C
“There! They’re coming! They’re here!”
A tiny speck of pulsing red light has appeared just above the horizon of the southern sky, contrasting to the dark grey afternoon haze.
A jolt of excitement surges through me. Myself and some 25 rangers who have been eagerly awaiting this moment all day, spring to life. Fingers are being pointed towards the light, growing stronger now. Vehicle engines start and shouts for colleagues gone astray bellow across the steppe.
Already we can hear the dull thrum of the helicopter, faint at first, but growing louder with every passing moment. Only a few minutes separate its first appearance as a red dot in the distance and the large Mi-171 helicopter hovering just above our heads. It starts lowering itself carefully onto the shaking grass, the sound of its powerful engine reverberating through the air.
As soon as the helicopter is squatting safely on the ground, a small door pops open, and out jumps Albert Salemgareyev, Kulan translocation project coordinator at ACBK (Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity of Kazakhstan). Emerging from the impressive machine, he appears tiny, and is soon joined by more tiny, bustling figures. While the noise of the helicopter slowly dies, other sounds arise: the metallic clanging of heavy cargo doors being opened, the rustic stuttering of an elderly tractor approaching from afar, and above all, the mingling of many excited voices shouting instructions in Kazakh and Russian.
Four young Kulan have just arrived at “Alibi”, a field station and reintroduction centre in central Kazakhstan. Alibi lies embedded in the vast steppe area that we work to protect as part of our national and international partnership. In 1930, the last Kulan native to Alibi was shot. Now the endangered species is experiencing a comeback. I am here for the third Kulan transportation.
The road to a self-sustaining Kulan population in central Kazakh grasslands is still long. This year, we have edged a little closer to this goal. – Anne Dohrmann
Just like me, the translocated Kulans are experiencing real steppe environment for the first time. The wild asses come from the rocky National Park “Altyn Emel”, which holds the largest Kulan population globally, and is located in the far south-east of Kazakhstan. So far, poor road connections have made a helicopter lift the only feasible option to transport these big animals 1,400km across the country.
Peeking through a narrow slit at the top of one of the boxes, I glimpse the attentive play of long, slender ears, back and forth, trying to make sense of the busy sounds around them. One might not guess that these animals have just completed an exhausting journey of almost ten hours. Some uncertainties accompanied their trip and we are glad to have them here on safe, central Kazakh ground now.
As opposed to the previous transports there was no possibility to individually handle the Kulans pre-boxing. The veterinary supplies commonly used for immobilizing large wildlife are currently not permitted in Kazakhstan, making handling Kulan quite the headache. A vet from Kazakhstan, experienced in national legislation and practicalities for moving Kulans, assisted us on site and provided our chosen animals with a mild sedation to ease their transportation stress. The procedure went well and showed us it is possible to transport Kulans with less potent medical drugs, although direct handling remained impossible.
5th November 2022, 10:57 a.m., field station Alibi, -5°C
The night following the helicopter’s arrival to Alibi, a persistent snow front settled onto the steppe, locking the aircraft and crew to the ground for over a week. While glad to have gotten in four Kulans just in time, we have to cancel the planned second transportation as no reliable improvement of the situation is to be expected.
We were aware of this risk. Earlier in October, Albert Salemgareyev and Alexander Putilin, two members of ACBK, joined a Government-led transportation of Kulans over land in order to explore the feasibility of this method. This crucial missing link in the road network is to be completed early 2023 and will end our dependency on weather conditions.
20th November 2022, 7:21 p.m., field station Alibi, -12°C
Establishing a group of wild asses is inherently complicated. Individual interactions and sympathies are hard to predict. In order to learn more about this and document any developments, I stay at the remote ranger station. While being awed by the steppe’s everyday beauty, the Kulan situation takes a shocking turn. After a few days, the stallion suddenly attacks two of the new Kulans fiercely and relentlessly. Aggressive behaviour of this intensity was not known from wild Kulans before, and even less anticipated in this particular stallion, as it had been very peaceful with other Kulans so far. Both animals sadly pass away from their injuries.
Wildlife reintroductions, especially of large species with complex, highly developed social structures like Kulan are unpredictable to a certain degree despite meticulous and careful planning. Not even a skilled and well experienced team such as ours, with national and international experts, is immune to the risks such a venture holds. Once more we are reminded of the struggle that comes with mending and recovering what has once been lost.
Bringing in more Kulans remains our main goal for 2023. This time on land. Aviation for Kulans is not completely off the table though: animals from European zoos shall be brought to Kazakhstan in the next years as well, to mitigate potential in-breeding.
21st December 2022, return to Astana, -23°C
Leaving the six kulans in the enclosure to the caretakers’ keen eyes, we bump along the frozen steppe tracks back to Astana. I gaze out the window onto the endless plains, now still and sparkling with frost. “One day, there will be Kulans here again,” I think to myself and smile. The road to a self-sustaining Kulan population in central Kazakh grasslands is still long. This year, thanks to the commitment of our team, we have edged a little closer towards this goal.
Anne Dohrmann studies veterinary medicine in Leipzig, Germany, and works as an assistant in the reintroduction project for the kulan with FZS.
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