On the afternoon of 11th October 2019 two kulan were released from their transport boxes onto the central steppes of Kazakhstan. These individuals had just completed an 850 km journey by truck from Barsa Kelmes State Nature Reserve in southern Kazakhstan where they had been captured a few days earlier. They will spend the next few months in a 55 ha acclimatisation enclosure before being released into the wild. The adult mare and the young stallion were following in the footsteps of nine other kulan which were released in October 2017. These are the first steps in developing the technical expertise to help reach a longer term vision of restoring the full community of large herbivores to this unique grassland ecosystem.
Kulan, also known as Asiatic wild ass, once roamed the deserts and steppes of Eurasia from the eastern shores of the Mediterranean to eastern Mongolia. By the early 20th century they had lost most of this range, with the exception of their stronghold in Mongolia’s Gobi desert. In Central Asia only one population persisted in southern Turkmenistan. Early Soviet era reintroductions brought kulan back to many locations, including two sites in Kazakhstan. However, these remain tiny pockets compared to their former range.
The abandonment of the central Torgai steppe area by people in the 1990’s has created a unique conservation opportunity to restore a fully functional steppe ecosystem. Since 2016 a consortium of conservation and research organisations have been working with the government of Kazakhstan to reintroduce kulan as a first step. The goal of the first years of this program has been to develop and refine the necessary methodology. In 2017, the first 9 animals were live captured in Altyn Emel National Park in southeastern Kazakhstan and flown by helicopter to the acclimatisation enclosures at Alibi in the centre of the Torgai steppe. This year’s goal was to capture additional animals from another area, Barsa Kelmes, and test the feasibility of using trucks to transport them.
During September-October 2019 20 attempts were made to capture animals in Barsa Kelmes using both a large corral for capturing groups at night, and darting individual animals from a vehicle by day. The capture process proved to be much harder than anticipated, mainly due to saxual bushes that took a heavy toll on vehicle tires, and areas of soft sand that trapped vehicles. Furthermore, several animals also escaped from the capture corral after being caught by jumping the fence, and we had to release some others that were not suitable for transport. By October 10th we had used up the time window available and loaded the available animals into individual transport boxes for the long journey to Alibi. Twenty three hours after leaving, the tired transport team arrived in Alibi and two kulan were released from their boxes to take their first steps in their new home.
Although the hope was to have transported more kulan this year, the capture season in Barsa Kelmes and the successful movement of these two individuals has provided valuable experience for future planning of what will need to be a long-term program if we are to seize this conservation opportunity and successfully restore kulan to the central steppes. Among the lessons learnt is that capturing kulan will always be a very demanding process with each site offering its own set of challenges. The truck-based transport this year was at the limits of what both the team and the kulan could tolerate without increasing risks to unacceptable levels, making the helicopter method tested in 2017 the only really viable approach with respect to the two wild source populations in Kazakhstan.
Gains for Barsa Kelmes were three additional kulan equipped with GPS-collars (bringing the total to 6 collared animals in the area), 16.5 hours of drone surveys to estimate the kulan population in the protected area, and a pilot camera trapping study monitoring kulan and other wildlife at waterpoints in the core area at Kaskakulan. As this information is analysed it will help the staff of Barsa Kelmes better plan their conservation efforts for this valuable kulan population.
The Qulan Dala project is a partnership of the Association for the Conservation of the Biodiversity of Kazakhstan, the Committee of Forestry and Wildlife (CFW) of the Ministry of Agriculture of Kazakhstan, the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research, Frankfurt Zoological Society, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and Nuremberg Zoo.
Veterinary support is provided by the Research Institute of Wildlife Ecology (FIWI) of the University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna & The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). Population genetics support comes from the Molecular Zoology Unit of the Technical University of Munich (TUM). This years’ capture efforts were further supported by the Okhotzooprom “Reintroduction Center”, Barsa Kelmes protected area, La Palmyr Zoo, Zoo Budapest, and Frankfurt Zoological garden.