Asiatic Wild Ass Returns to Kazakhstan's Central Steppes

Asiatic Wild Ass Returns to Kazakhstan's Central Steppes

On Oct. 24, a first group of nine animals was released into an acclimatization enclosure on the edge of the Altyn Dala protected area in central Kazakhstan.

Photo: John Linnell/NINA

For the first time in more than a century, kulan—the Asiatic wild ass—are now roaming the central steppes of Kazakhstan.

On Oct. 24, a first group of nine animals was released into an acclimatization enclosure on the edge of the Altyn Dala protected area in central Kazakhstan. The animals had been transported 1,200 kilometers (about 745 miles) by helicopter from Altyn Emel National Park in southeast Kazakhstan. They will be released into the wild in early spring. This is the first step in a multi-year project that aims to restore the full range of large herbivores to this unique area of steppe habitat.

Kulan once ranged across the Middle East and Central Asia, from the Mediterranean to the east of Mongolia. During the last two centuries, their range has been dramatically reduced to less than 3% of their former range. Although the species is doing relatively well in Mongolia, the Central Asian subspecies is classified as endangered and only persists in small isolated populations in Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan.

The current project aims to move 30-40 kulan from Altyn Emel to the central steppes during the next three to four years.

“The initial translocation of nine animals this year was a pilot project to test the methodology and logistics of animal capture, handling, transport and release,” said Petra Kaczensky, Dr.Rer.Silv, a research scientist from the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research (NINA), who is coordinating the project.

The kulan were transported 1,200 kilometers by helicopter from Altyn Emel National Park in southeast Kazakhstan to their temporary enclosures.

Photo: John Linnell/NINA

Steffen Zuther, project leader of the Altyn Dala Conservation Initiative and main implementation partner in Kazakhstan, added, “The approach using a corral to capture animals, chemical immobilization (sedation) for handling, a helicopter for transport, and a large acclimatization enclosure at the release site worked rather well. For future years we will do a bit of fine-tuning.”

Various circumstances created the unique opportunity to conserve the species in Kazakhstan:

  • The ongoing social and economic changes following the collapse of the Soviet Union have created a vast area of available habitat in the central part of the country which is currently home to the world’s second largest population of saiga antelope. This area is subject to the “Altyn Dala Conservation Initiative.”
  • The population of kulan in Altyn Emel National Park has grown to such an extent that the park now has a surplus of animals that can be used to create additional populations.
  • Funding became available from the Fondation Segré and Nuremberg Zoo.

The project is coordinated by NINA and implemented with the Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity of Kazakhstan, in partnership with the Committee of Forestry and Wildlife of the Ministry of Agriculture of Kazakhstan, the Royal Society for Protection of Birds, Frankfurt Zoological Society, and Nuremberg Zoo within the framework of the Altyn Dala Conservation Initiative. Technical veterinary assistance was provided by the Wildlife Conservation Society and the University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna, Austria.

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