The story of the steppe

What began as a mission to save the saiga antelope from extinction has grown into one of the largest conservation projects in the world.  

Together, a group of pioneering multinational partners are working to preserve a unique ecosystem in Kazakhstan, creating a place where wildlife and local communities can thrive together.

This is the story of Altyn Dala – the ‘Golden Steppe’.

A sea of feather grass the size of France

There is nowhere on Earth like the Kazakh steppe in Central Asia. This is the largest expanse of semi-desert grassland in the world, a true wilderness. 

Skylarks rain a continuous burble of song from far above, while the breeze carries the herbal aroma of wormwood, sending ripples through the feather grass and tulips, making it look like a golden ocean. This is the realm of the saiga, an antelope that has walked the earth since the time of our Neanderthal ancestors, alongside a unique group of animals and plants.

The steppe spans 750,000 km2, stretching across Kazakhstan, from the border with Uzbekistan in the south, to Russia in the north. The combination of grasslands, semi-desert and wetlands are home to a stunning variety of wildlife, including steppe eagles, jerboas and wolves. More than 10 million migratory birds pass through the UNESCO Natural World Heritage wetlands here every year.

Despite this, the steppe is one of the least protected terrestrial habitats on Earth, and under threat from climate change, intensive agriculture, and industrial development.

Many steppe species are endangered or declining in numbers, and indeed some have already been lost in this part of the world, including Przewalski’s horse and Asiatic cheetah. We’re working here to understand the complex steppe ecosystem, to create better protection for the most vulnerable species, and to restore lost and declining species.

A home for rare species

Across this unique wilderness, herds of ancient antelopes roam, rare rodents burrow, majestic eagles soar, and threatened birds pause on their epic migrations.

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Saiga antelope

The saiga is the iconic species of the Kazakh steppe. These nomadic antelopes live in huge herds and migrate up to 1,000 km each year. They follow traditional routes, moving to where the food is plentiful during their rutting and calving seasons.

The distinctive bulbous noses of saiga are an adaptation to the sometimes-harsh conditions of the steppe. In freezing winter conditions, when temperatures can drop to -400C, their noses warm the cold air as they inhale. In the hot, dry summers, reaching up to +400C, their noses help filter out dust. Millions of saiga once roamed the steppe, but intense poaching combined with historic conversion of millions of hectares of grasslands for arable agriculture took a huge toll on their numbers, bringing them close to extinction in the 1990s.

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Kulan (wild ass)

Like the saiga, Asiatic wild asses or ‘kulan’ are an iconic steppe species, living in nomadic herds. They are perfectly adapted to life in this semi-desert, growing a thicker coat of hair in the winter to keep them warm. They have a dark stripe that runs along their back, from mane to tail.

Kulan were once common across Kazakhstan, but they were hunted to extinction here in the 1930s. Today, one of the largest remaining herds in the world (3611 individuals in 2022) lives  in one protected area in the south of the country. The Altyn Dala Conservation Initiative is using this group to begin establishing new kulan populations in central Kazakhstan.

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Birds

The Kazakh Steppe is an important place for many rare and threatened birds. During spring and autumn, 10 million birds use the wetland areas to feed, rest, and moult their feathers during migration.

The conservation work we’re doing here is critical to the future of species such as sociable lapwings, Siberian cranes, demoiselle cranes, steppe eagles, white-headed ducks and little bustards.

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Other wildlife

The steppe, semi-desert and desert landscapes are home to a diverse range of species, from small burrowing rodents such as yellow ground squirrels, marmots and great jerboas, to larger mammals such as steppe wolves and corsac foxes. Desert monitor lizards slink across the arid landscape, alongside Horsfield’s tortoises and many other reptiles.

The web of life here is interdependent and essential to the healthy functioning of the steppe ecosystem.

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People & history

Traditional Kazakh culture was shaped by the rhythms of nature in the steppe. Like the saiga, communities were nomadic for thousands of years, moving seasonally with their grazing livestock to escape the icy winds blasting across the flat landscape in winter, and avoid the intense heat of the summer.

During the 1950s, when Kazakhstan was part of the Soviet Union, state farming subsidies encouraged intense farming across the steppe. The farming activity severely degraded the natural habitat and much of the wildlife disappeared.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the subsidies finished, and many of the farmers moved away to find other sources of income. The steppe began recovering, and some of the wildlife returned. But as farmers retreated, other threats and pressures arrived…

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Modern challenges for an ancient species

Saiga and humans have lived alongside each other for thousands of years. Historically, the antelopes have been an important source of food and skins for steppe communities, with no more being taken than the population could sustain. But in the last few decades, poachers have been hunting male saiga for their horns to supply the Traditional Chinese Medicine market. The scale of the relentless hunting, alongside other pressures such as disease and habitat fragmentation from development, drove the saiga close to extinction.

By the end of the 1990s, 95% of the world’s saiga were gone, with just 20,000 individuals remaining. It was the threat of the saiga’s extinction that galvanised the Altyn Dala Conservation Initiative partners to come together and save the species before it was too late.

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Illegal wildlife trade. Saiga horns, found only on males, are highly valuable in Traditional Chinese Medicine. Organised gangs of commercial poachers were taking thousands of male saiga every year, resulting in the disproportionate number of remaining male and female saiga and the subsequent fall of their reproduction rate.

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Hunting. Saiga have traditionally been a source of meat for nomadic herders and then local communities, but when the saiga population is too small, hunting becomes unsustainable.

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Loss of migration routes. New roads, railways, border fences and other artificial barriers break the migration routes in some parts of the saiga’s habitats, making it harder for them to find food year-round.

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Disease. In the unusually warm and humid summer of 2015, a haemorrhagic virus ripped through the saiga population. Over 200,000 saiga, 60% in Kazakhstan, died in one month, tragically illustrating their vulnerability to climate change