The drivers manoeuvred their trucks to guide the wild asses. Silhouetted against the bright headlights, the horse-like shapes kicked up dust as they galloped ahead. With the vehicles keeping up the pace, the equines cantered into the black night. Suddenly the chase ended, and the confused animals stopped running. They found themselves trapped in a large circular paddock, a modern adaptation of an ancient method of capturing ungulates across Central Asia. In an earlier era, hunters would have killed them, but the men capturing them now wanted them alive. If all goes well, the trapped Turkmen wild asses will parent a whole population of their kind in Kazakhstan.
“Capturing wild animals is always an uncertain process,” says Petra Kaczensky, the international coordinator of this effort. “On the first two attempts, we failed to capture any. By the third night, we knew that the success or failure of the whole year’s work was dependent on a combination of the skill of the capture team and a lot of luck. The feeling of anticipation as they drove the first group towards the corral was intense. They were coming closer and closer…. When the group trotted inside and the gate was closed, there was an incredible sense of relief. The operation was back on track.”
At one time, the steppes of Central Asia teemed with mammals like the Turkmen wild ass, Przewalski’s horse, saiga antelope and Turkmen gazelles. In the 12th century, the greatest military general the world has ever seen, Genghis Khan, decreed that no one in his empire could hunt them for most of the year. His concern was not animal conservation but keeping his armed men in fine fettle. In a great hunt he staged every winter, the blood of animals flowed across the grassland. He and his army slaughtered them like they did away with their enemies.
Since ancient times, hunters across Arabia and Central Asia used enormous stone-walled pens to capture entire herds of animals. World War I pilots named such structures ‘desert kites’ after their shape. The Mongols may have also used such corrals to corner animals but there is no evidence that they did. Since then, one warring tribe superseded another and, along with the losers, the animals also paid a price – killed for meat, hides and horns.
Almost a century ago, the wild herbivores of Kazakhstan suffered another setback when the country became part of the Soviet Union. The communist regime encouraged settlements and livestock husbandry in the steppe. Between the twin perils – hunting and competition with livestock for winter forage and water – the animals of the temperate grasslands stood little chance. The region’s occasional severe winters pushed the survivors over the edge. It’s a similar story in the neighbourhood – Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Iran. Although the saiga antelope still holds out, the Przewalski’s horse and the Turkmen wild ass (Equus hemionus kulan) disappeared.
Today, the kulan, as the Mongolians and Central Asians call the wild ass, inhabits less than 3% of its former global range. Of the five subspecies, this one is endangered. Several thousand of another subspecies (Equus hemionus khur) run free in the saline desert of the Rann of Kutch, India.
The collapse of the Soviet Union opened an opportunity to reverse the kulan’s fate in Kazakhstan as funds to keep the remote settlements and livestock cooperatives afloat dried up. An exodus of people to cities more than 100 kilometres away left the steppes empty. Wild ungulates could now repopulate an area the size of France.
An international coalition of organisations coordinated by the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research (NINA) is working to get the kulan back to central Kazakhstan under a program called KULANSTEP.
Other organisations involved in KULANSTEP project are:
- Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (UK)
- Frankfurt Zoological Society and Nuremberg Zoo (Germany)
- Fondation Segré (Switzerland)
- Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity of Kazakhstan
- Committee of Forestry and Wildlife of the Ministry of Agriculture, Govt. of Kazakhstan
The team identified a section of the vast grassland, the Torgai steppe, in the centre of the country to seed with the animals. It wasn’t confident the two populations of kulan in different corners of the country could colonise the area on their own.
In October, members of the conservation consortium drove 54 kulan into the corrals set up in Altyn Emel National Park in the southeast. The pens that once finished off the kulan are now an instrumental tool in this extraordinary effort to aid the species.
October is the best time for the capture operations because it is long past the kulan’s breeding season. The Stallions’ testosterone levels are at their lowest ebb, so they don’t kick and bite at the slightest provocation. Pregnant mares would be over the critical period when they could lose foetuses to stress. At four months of age, foals would have weaned and could survive without their mothers if separated during capture.
Two people from NINA closely involved with KULANSTEP – John Linnell, senior researcher, and Petra Kaczensky – spoke to The Wire about their experience.
The team had permits to transfer 16 and the cargo helicopter that would transport the animals could hold 18. But two days was too short a time to evaluate every one of the 54 animals. “With these mass captures you have little control over how many you capture,” says Linnell.
The conservationists chose nine – four mares, four foals, and one stallion – and let the rest go immediately.
Among these extra kulan were two mares that seemed too nervous to make the 1,200-kilometre long journey. They were good candidates to study how the natal herd behaved at Altyn Emel. The wildlife managers screwed GPS-collars on those two as well as the four mares that would form the first harem on Torgai. The six neckpieces would periodically transmit the location of their wearers to the researchers, who would use the data to protect and study the kulan.
Linnell remembers one animal especially. “She almost broke my back when we tried to lift her box,” he says. “Eight people had to take a double heave to just move her.” That large mare’s collar has an extra device – a camera programmed to take a photograph every 30 minutes. The neckbands are timed to fall off the animals within a year.
A cargo helicopter airlifted the nine tranquilised ungulates to the Torgai steppe, where no kulan had set hoof for more than a century. They will live in transit enclosures at the abandoned village of Alibi, along the river Uly-Zhylanshyk, for the next few months. In that time, they would have acclimatised themselves to their new home.
“For decades, I’ve worked on research projects that involve live-capturing wild animals for radio-collaring,” says Linnell. “However, we always release the animals after a few minutes. On this project, we are actually taking the animals into a situation where we are responsible for all their needs for several months. It was a very different situation emotionally.”
The nine will step out of their paddocks in spring after the snow melts and the grasslands turn green. Then, they will be free to roam 60,000 square kilometres of virgin expanse, of which about 40,000 is a mosaic of protected areas. Over the next three to four years, 30 to 40 kulan from Altyn Emel will join the founding colony. With plentiful water and grazing, and lack of people and livestock, their numbers may swell to 30,000.
What could possibly go wrong in this grazing paradise?
Since excessive hunting killed the species off in the past, poaching could be one big headache for the wildlife managers. People love the meat of horses and the saiga antelope, and since the kulan will share the same terrain, hunters now have a choice of meat on the hoof.
The wild ass has an advantage that the antelope doesn’t. “In this area, they believe kulan is haram ‘because they sleep with their head close to their ass’,” says Linnell.
At one time their hides were prized for making Morocco leather. Would trade in skins resume when kulan numbers increase? Two hunting reserves abut the sanctuaries and parks where the equines have safe passage. For now, a Kazakh NGO leases these reserves.
“Illegal hunting is always a potential risk,” says Kaczensky. “However, this area is massive and the human density is as low as you can find on the planet! There have also been massive changes since the period when these animals were hunted out over a century ago. The area is closely patrolled by rangers from the protected areas, the hunting concessions and the state rangers – plus we shall finance a dedicated patrol team to follow the kulan. The biggest problem is that people may not know the animal is protected, so we are investing heavily in public outreach in the area. But in the end, it boils down to having local people on your side and caring [for the kulan].”
Offspring descended from a large number of animals have lots of genetic variations. But the kulan of Kazakhstan are the progeny of a small seed population.
In 1953, the Kazakhs introduced a few kulan from Turkmenistan to Barsa-Kelmes, which was once an island in the Aral Sea, southwest Kazakhstan. Forty years later, they moved about 30 from this small colony to the southeast, to Altyn Emel, which grew to be 3,000 strong. The chosen progenitors of the Torgai thus suffered two bottlenecks and could have much lower genetic diversity. They may be susceptible to diseases and unable to adapt to changing circumstances.
Kaczensky points out that Barsa-Kelmes has only 500 kulan. “Our own genetic analysis showed the Altyn Emel population has remained quite diverse,” she says.
There were other considerations. “Altyn Emel is the only place where mass capture is feasible, and in the early phase, we want to get numbers up as fast as we can,” says Linnell. “However, in the longer term, we certainly plan to add some animals from Barsa-Kelmes to increase genetic variability. We are also evaluating the possibility of bringing [Turkmen kulan] from European zoos, once we have completed a genetic screening of their origins.”
Wild equids are typically not as susceptible to diseases as other herbivores. Despite their natural resistance, an epidemic of surra, a protozoan transmitted by flies, caused a population crash of the Indian wild ass in Gujarat.
The team is not taking any chances. “We have blood-sampled the animals and they will be screened carefully,” says Kaczensky.
Every few years, winters on the steppe take a terrible turn. Called dzhut, a layer of ice freezes above the snow, burying plants and water. In extreme dzhuts, even horses cannot dig or crack through the ice. Throughout history, such catastrophic weather events in the Central Asian steppe caused starvation, finishing off animal populations. The kulan could outrun a dzhut to southern climes – but would the new arrivals know what to do?
“They live in a very unpredictable environment, where summer rainfall can be just as important as winter snow, for example,” says Linnell. “This means that the species is able to respond to unpredictable changes. The important thing is that the release site is a massive area of unfragmented habitat – so the animals have the freedom to move and adapt. It’s also why we will keep them in a large enclosure until the end of winter – to buffer them against the worst weather.”
If the Kazakhs had already repopulated Barsa-Kelmes and Altyn Emel with kulan in the past, why do they need international collaboration this time?
“Such projects are hugely expensive and this is the first time since the Soviet Union ended that they have tried such a long move,” says Linnell. “Also, in the past, they had a lot of mortality. So we provided the funds needed [from Fondation Segré and Nuremberg Zoo] and the veterinary competence as well as logistic support. But the goal is to train people.”
The nine kulan are now into their fourth week in the temporary enclosures at Alibi. How have they taken to their new home?
“All are behaving beautifully,” says Kaczensky. “They are moving as a group. They have learnt to use the covered shelter when it’s cold; they have learnt to drink water from the concrete troughs. They have not tried to break out. So far they have not eaten any of the hay. But the enclosure is large and still contains plenty of wild food. They are maintaining their natural shyness of people but are allowing the caretakers and veterinarians to watch them from a hundred meters or so. We want to be able to keep a close eye on them, but want them to remain wild animals – so it’s a question of finding the right balance.”
With the kulan’s return, the ecosystem is one step closer to its former glory. Grazing by large herbivores improves the habitat not only for the critically endangered saiga antelope but birds such as the sociable lapwing (Vanellus gregarius). Eurasian wolves may also gain from adding kulan to their menu.
“A project like this is incredibly complicated, with hundreds of different elements that need to be in the right place at the right time,” says Kaczensky. “The whole project could have failed if one single part had not clicked into place.”
As for Genghis Khan, according to The Secret History of the Mongols, the oldest surviving literary work in Mongolian written 800 years ago shortly after his death, in a stroke of historical irony, his horse threw him while hunting the kulan. He died in agony.
His descendants in India, the Mughals, were perhaps the only Indian royalty to go after the wild ass. In his memoir Babarnama, Babur mentions galloping after one on a hunt. He shot it twice with arrows but it continued running until he hacked its neck with a sword. “My sword cut well!” he writes.
Unlike his forefathers’ bloodthirsty experiences, Akbar, Babar’s grandson, had a divine vision while on a wild ass hunt at Multan, in 1571, says chronicler Abu’l Fazl.
None of the big time hunters among other Indian or colonial elite targeted the species, and still it inexplicably died out throughout its range. By 1961, its numbers were down to less than 1,000 in one pocket: Kutch. Today, more than 4,000 wild asses’ hooves clop through these seasonal salt marshes.
The message for India is simple, says Linnell. “It is much easier to care for what you have!”
Janaki Lenin is the author of My Husband and Other Animals. She lives in a forest with snake-man Rom Whitaker and tweets at @janakilenin.