Protecting saigas in Russia’s Stepnoy Sanctuary

Stepnoy Sanctuary

This report comes courtesy of Vladimir Kalmykov, Director of the Stepnoy Sanctuary.

Spring is the most vivid, exhilarating and worrisome period of the year in the Stepnoy Sanctuary, an area of 109,000 hectares in the Limansky District of the Astrakhan Region of  Russia. It features a number of rare plants and animals, including the saiga antelope.

The steppe turns green very fast and some areas are entirely covered with blooming flowers. Birds are coming back and the steppe is full of chirping.

But most importantly, it is the time when the saiga give birth to their calves.

Staff monitors all movements of both herds and individual animals in order to determine, with the highest possible precision, the locations that female saigas choose for their “maternity ward.”

In order to ensure that the animals are not disturbed in this fragile period and as directed by the Agency for Environmental Resources Management and Conservation of the Astrakhan Region, all movement along all of the roads within the territory of “saiga reproduction zone” is limited.

Things were complicated by the weather, the likes of which even the long-term residents have never witnessed. Storm winds and strong downpours turned the steppe roads into canals, scaring the saigas and the people, who were anxiously waiting for the calving to start.

In spite of everything the saigas chose two areas of the Sanctuary that are 20 km away from each other. Based on visual estimation a total of approximately 2500 female saigas gathered there to give birth, but they apparently were waiting for the weather to improve.

READ: Saigas: While record die-offs happen afar, brigades protect foals on Russian steppe

Soon a bright, hot sun and a light breeze started to dry the earth and the silver feather grass, the steppe was full of sound – the newly born saiga calves were responding to their mothers.

This year a decision was made to avoid disturbing the gathered animals even for scientific purposes.

We can confidently state that calving went well: it was over in a week, while loss of life for mothers and calves was very low.

This is confirmed by monitoring vultures, who regularly travel long distances to the locations of saiga calving: they had to be content to eat mostly placenta. We also did not see any massive attacks against saiga calves by other predators. All of this leaves hope for a noticeable increase of the population in 2016.

The Sanctuary is full of life: the newly born hares, fox and wolf cubs are playing; the nestlings of birds of prey are growing in their nests, and crane chicks have already start waddling behind their parents.

But quite soon this picture that delights the eye will be replaced by a harsher landscape: the carpet of spring flowers will turn into a yellow hard surface, which is the forerunner of fire season, both natural (caused by “dry” thunderstorms), and human-induced.

In order to minimize the damage of possible fires, the Sanctuary staff has already started clearing up the roads and ploughing the most fire-prone plots.

This work is made possible by the support that the Sanctuary received from the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) as well as that provided by the Agency for Environmental Resources Management and Conservation of the Astrakhan Region.

It is also difficult to overestimate the help of the local farmers with whom the Sanctuary, in recent years, has  established relationships based on the love of nature and the native land, on mutual support and understanding.

READ: Fighting fires to protect saiga foals

I would like to express enormous gratitude to the leadership of the Agency for Environmental Resources Management and Conservation of the Astrakhan Region for their constant attention to the Sanctuary, as well as to our colleagues and partners (Saiga Conservation Alliance, WWF and IFAW). With support of the Russian Office of International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) a solar panel was installed at the Sanctuary's lodge, which provided us with light and the ability to charge batteries. And also we received two camera traps from IFAW which we can use to document events taking place in the steppe hidden from the unaided eye.

We try our best to make sure we do everything possible to ensure the survival of this wonderful species for future generations.

--VK

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