ASTANA, Nov. 26 – With more than half a million square kilometres of steppe traversed by important bird and mammal migration routes, Kazakhstan is a globally significant area of biodiversity, and carries a weight of responsibility for its protection. In addition to its other landscapes and native animals, Kazakhstan is the home of 90 percent of the world’s saiga. Since 2001, the government of Kazakhstan has been funding their conservation.
Assylkhan Assylbekov and Aiman Omarbekova, national experts from the five-year United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) project, Preservation and Sustainable Management of Steppe Ecosystems, launched by the government of Kazakhstan and the Global Environment Fund (GEF), spoke to The Astana Times about the project.
When was the project launched?
The project started its activity in the beginning of 2009. The goal of the project was to create reserves for saiga in Kazakhstan over five years. The total amount of funds allocated for the project was US$23 million but most of it was natural contributions; i.e. the costs for the pilot experiments of the specially secured Irgis-Turgai Reserve and Naurzum Natural Park, Bayanaul and others. We got real money from the GEF in the amount of US$2.21 million for five years.
The other goal was to preserve the biodiversity of steppe ecosystems by creating new, special territories, because … according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), specially preserved territories help save plants and animals. We have a lot of steppe on our territory, but our steppe is Pontic, which is a special type of Eurasian steppe. The Pontic steppe has been ploughed up in Europe, Hungary and Ukraine, but not in Kazakhstan. Our steppes are natural steppes that have been preserved and they are almost intact. The steppe should stretch for a long territory for the convenience of migrating animals like saiga.
How many saiga live in Kazakhstan?
180,000 head. The population is divided into different types, the Betpak Dala, Ustyurt and Ural populations. The Ustyurt population spreads into Uzbekistan. Our Betpak Dala population is the largest one, about 150,000. This is a unique, relict type of animal from the time of the mammoth. If the saiga disappears in Kazakhstan, it will disappear all over the world. That means that a very important type of biodiversity will disappear.
The GEF decided to help Kazakhstan save steppe ecosystems [by creating protected reserves]. Over the course of the project we created two such territories: Buratau National Park in the Karaganda and Akmola regions, and Altyn Dala, the national natural reserve in Kostanay oblast. The overall territory is 480,000 hectares.
How do you conduct research on saiga populations and migration?
Researching saiga is very difficult because they migrate often. It is impossible to catch and hold saiga for more than 5-7 minutes, because the animals can die of heart attacks. We use GPS collar technology, so we can put a collar on an animal that will show where it is. After that, we make maps of saiga migration. The only problem is poachers. When they kill saiga, they destroy the collars.
What is being done to combat poaching?
The Ministry of Education and Science is directly involved in this work. It is necessary to hold lessons in schools talking about the damage poaching does to the environment. We can influence poachers through their children, who study at school, that it is prohibited to kill saiga because they are in the World Red Book [the IUCN list of threatened species].
The poachers are mostly in the South Kazakhstan region. Our partners, the Association for the Preservation of Biological Diversity, put posters at every bus station and in other public places. We have secured the introduction of a criminal penalty for killing saiga and using saiga products, which is stated in Article 292 of the Criminal Code.
Before that amendment in the law, poachers were fined. Now that this is a criminal act, everything associated with committing an act of poaching is subject to confiscation. This is a constraining factor now.
Who decided to launch this project in Kazakhstan?
As usual, the UNDP jointly with the Committee of Forestry and Hunting decide what the pressing problems in Kazakhstan are. In 2004-2005, the project began to be discussed. A justification document was prepared to show the weak points in our ecosystem.
We also invited international experts, who saw how many hectares were allocated for the project. We prepared a management plan for every reserve, which describes scientific, methodological and other activities.
The government participates directly. We cannot create reserves by ourselves; the Committee of Forestry and Hunting does this. We communicate with them on a daily basis.
What did the project achieve over five years?
We opened two reserves. We secured amendments to the law. We increased the capacity of the employees of the pilot projects … Over the existence of our project, we wrote our reforms into law, and … from now on reserves will be created not at the level of prime minister, but at the akimat level, which is much easier and more convenient.
Who controls the implementation of the project? How is it implemented?
On a quarterly basis, we write reports to the Committee of Forestry and Hunting. We have an Atlas system that is checked by the UNDP and other agencies abroad. Different responsible agencies have various access and they control the implementation. We have certain indicators we need to achieve.
Our activity is subject to double reviews: in addition to our domestic experts, they hire foreign experts to hold independent assessments. Upon the completion of the project, we got the ‘beyond satisfactory’ mark. Not just satisfactory, but better: we implemented much more than we needed to. We created a reserve in the Western Kazakhstan region, one not in the original project plan, where 11,900 saiga had died in 2012. At the time, we held workshops to identify regions where we could create reserves for saiga and preserve the steppe.
Upon the completion of the project, who is going to control the reserves?
The government; we were just executors. The Committee of Forestry and Hunting and heads of various agencies are part of the controlling body. Every six month we reported to them on our activity and after the end of the project, their inspectors will go on the ground and control the saiga population level and the environmental corridor and report to the control group.
Recently the UNDP office in Kazakhstan announced a new project. What will the project do?
On Nov. 15, the UNDP announced the launch of a new project on the conservation of globally significant biodiversity in Kazakhstan’s desert ecosystems. The new project involves expanding protected areas, land-use planning on the basis of landscapes and involving local communities in co-managing protected areas and participating in the development of alternative activities with the support of microcredit programmes. Target ecosystems of the project will be the Ile-Balkash, Ustyurt and Aral-Syrdarya desert and semi-desert ecosystems. The project will be implemented in the Almaty, Kyzylorda and Mangystau regions.
The agencies controlling the project will be the Ministry of Environment and Water Resources, the Ministry of Regional Development, and others.