Grasslands, Shrublands, Deserts
Drylands of the World: EURASIA: Page 3 One of the last vestiges of untouched Ukrainian steppe has been preserved in a magnificent reserve, the Askaniya-Nova, which covers 27,500 acres. In fact, it is one of the last examples of virgin steppe in the world (Durrell and Durrell 1986). Established in 1878 by Friedrich Falz-Fein, a wealthy landowner and descendant of a German settler, the land was originally used as a sheep farm. Native wildlife species were gradually introduced into the steppe, and mounted shepherds guarded them (Stewart 1992). Bobac marmots, which have become rare on the steppe, live in the reserve in colonies, and many native reptiles and amphibians survive here ‒ safe from the agricultural development that surrounds them. Some 450 species of plants grow in Askaniya-Nova's grasslands, turning the land into a blaze of color in the spring with the blooms of thousands of wildflowers (Durrell and Durrell 1986). The area is reintroducing the great bustard, one of the many species of birds that almost disappeared. (Otis tarda).
Covering 1.6 million square miles (4.5 million square kilometers) in a belt between 200 and 600 miles wide, the steppe to the east remained lightly grazed by domestic livestock, and uncultivated until the 20th century. The native grasses of the steppe formed a tough turf, mainly of wild oat, rye grasses, sedge and fescue (Sparks 1992). These grasslands date back to the Pliocene Era, 7 to 10 million years ago. In some areas, the soil, known as Chernozem or black earth, is more than 3 feet deep and extraordinarily rich (Stewart 1992). In the south, graceful feather grasses (Stipa) use felt-like down to trap a layer of air to reduce water loss because of evaporation (Stewart 1992). Wild tulips, crocuses, irises and hyacinths color the steppe in spring and summer. The famed Russian author, Nicolai Gogol, described it as a "green-gold ocean splashed with millions of different colored flowers" (Stewart 1992). Diversity in the wild steppe is high; some 80 species of plants grow in a single square meter (Sparks 1992). Scorching heat up to 104 degrees F in the summer has stimulated the evolution of drought-resistant grasses.
The saiga was the dominant animal in this ecosystem, ranging in herds numbering in the tens of millions, making it the ecological equivalent of the American bison. Its distribution during the Ice Ages nearly circled the world, extending from England across Europe and throughout the entire Asian continent to western North America, which the species reached by land bridge. Saiga became extinct in North America and western Europe thousands of years ago, but until recent centuries, they ranged through most of northern Eurasia, from Poland south to Romaina and the southern Carpathian mountains and east to Mongolia and western China. This animal is a zoological curiosity, seeming to be part goat, part sheep and part antelope. Scientists were at a loss for hundreds of years to classify it. It has now been placed in the Bovidae family with wild cattle, gazelles and antelope, in its own genus and subfamily. At about 5 feet long and 31 inches tall at the shoulder, saiga males weigh up to 152 pounds and have short, spiraled horns. Females lack horns and are slightly smaller. Both have a heavy wool-like, buff-colored coat. The most extraordinary characteristic of these animals is their bulbous noses, which have greatly developed and complicated bones (Nowak 1999). The humped nose contains a sac lined by mucous membranes, an adaptation for warming and moistening inhaled air in the freezing winter weather. In warmer parts of the year, the membranes filter out the fine grit carried on the wind in clouds of dust (Sparks 1992).
The arid, open grasslands provide an ideal habitat for saiga, which can subsist on plants that are bitter and even toxic to other wildlife. They are capable of surviving the brutal, howling winds of the Central Asian winter, where temperatures reach -20 degrees F, and even begin courtship rut when snow is still on the ground in December (Sparks 1992). After mating, the herds migrate north, traveling up to 930 miles from their breeding areas in groups of 100,000 (Sparks 1992). They are able to streak across the steppe at speeds up to 50 miles per hour, covering 75 miles in a day (Nowak 1999). In May, when they have arrived at lush grassland, the calves are born. By August, they move south to wintering quarters, forming large herds again. The gray wolf and saiga have had a close ecological relationship for thousands of years as interdependent predator and prey, but today both are threatened.
Saiga were exterminated in the Crimea as early as the 13th century, but survived in the southern Ukraine until the 1700s (Nowak 1999). In the mid-19th century, a massive slaughter of saiga commenced, concurrent with that of the American bison and pronghorn in North America. They were eliminated in the entire central portion of their range from Kazakhstan to western China, thousands of miles to the east. The near-extermination of the Saiga occurred for a frivolous purpose: to obtain their horns to be ground up into powder sold as an aphrodisiac. The multitudes of saiga were reduced to less than a thousand animals by the first decade of the 20th century (Nowak 1999). Extinction appeared a likely prospect when the Soviet government banned all saiga hunting in Russia in 1919, and four years later extended the ban to Kazakhstan (Stewart 1992).
Their numbers began to climb, but saiga encountered other difficulties that pushed many of their populations closer to extinction. The animals have been blocked by fences constructed in the 20th century in many parts of the steppe. Thousands have died after crashing into them at night at great speed. On one state farm, 300 were found dead in a single day, piled up against the fences (Stewart 1992). They have also drowned in irrigation canals, though in recent years, efforts have been made to prevent such deaths (Stewart 1992). Killing round-ups still occur, however, and by some reports, helicopters were used to herd the saiga until they collapsed in exhaustion; they were then machine-gunned (Stewart 1992). However, they recovered to more than 1 million animals by the 1970s, when another killing spree began. High prices were offered for their horns in the Asian folk medicine market, and the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s ended anti-poaching controls. Their population in Kalmykia declined from 800,000 in the 1970s to 120,000 in the 1990s (Nowak 1999).
Contamination of their steppe habitat in Uzbekistan from manufacture of chemical weapons has also killed the saiga. In 1988, thousands dropped dead on the Ustgart Plateau south of the Aral Sea when the wind unexpectedly shifted during a test at a nearby chemical weapons plant (Miller 1999). The heart of this species' population is now in the region north of the Aral and Caspian Seas in Kazakhstan, where the nominate subspecies (Saiga tatarica tatarica) survives. The massive killing caused their numbers to drop from 1.2 million to less than 600,000 (Chan et al. 1995, Nowak 1999). The price of their horns declined in the mid-1990s, perhaps as a reaction to the listing of the species on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.
Only two small, highly endangered populations of their second subspecies, Saiga tatarica mongolica, survive far to the east in northwestern Mongolia. According to the IUCN (1994), a herd in the Shargiin Gobi that numbered 1,600 in 1989 declined to between 300 and 1,000 by 1993, while the other in Har-Us-Nuur totaled only 36 animals in 1989. Dr. Ronald Nowak, author of Walker's Mammals of the World, estimates their population at only about 300 (Nowak 1999). In any case, the Mongolian saiga is extremely endangered and lacks a strong conservation program to ensure its recovery. Their numbers continue to decline from poaching, severe winters and summers and genetic isolation (IUCN 1994). Although legally protected from hunting, no reserve has been set aside for them and there are no patrols to prevent poaching (IUCN 1994). They represent the last of the eastern saiga herds that inhabited the desert regions of western China and Mongolia, and they have lost 80 percent of their range. Efforts are being made by nomad herders to reintroduce the species into the Great Gobi National Park in southwestern Mongolia; young saiga calves are placed with domestic goats who foster-parent them (Schaller 1990), a potentially dangerous method if the calves imprint on the goats, possibly resulting in saiga trying to mate with goats upon reaching sexual maturity.
Few people from Western Europe or North America have seen saiga in the wild, and they are extremely rare in captivity. The late Gerald Durrell, a British zoologist and founder of Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust, visited a Russian reserve called Kalmyk in the 1980s. He described the terrain as flat and dry, covered with golden grasses the exact color of the saiga's coat (Durrell and Durrell 1986). Lovely demoiselle cranes (Anthropoides virgo) fed in the grasses, and after a seven hour drive on the steppe, having passed only one village, they saw a huge herd of saiga grazing. "They were a magnificent sight as they moved slowly across the steppe with the colored sky and the sinking sun as a backdrop, the young giving strange, harsh, rattling bleats to be answered in deeper tones by their mothers" (Durrell and Durrell 1986). The next day, they found even bigger herds "until the ground seemed to be a sea of saiga." They filmed with great difficulty because the saiga were still wary and shy, but finally succeeded in driving a herd toward the camera. The film was shown on the series “Durrells in Russia” (see Video, Regional, Eurasia).
Another native ungulate came close to total extinction. Przewalski's horses (Equus przewalskii) ‒ stocky and wild — once ranged throughout the steppe. Some experts believe they evolved 150,000 to 250,000 years ago in the region, while others consider them to be a strain of the domestic horse (Nowak 1999). These sturdy, robust horses are uniformly tan with a stiff black mane, long black tail and black lower legs. For thousands of years they survived harsh climates, as long as grass and water were available. Their original range encompassed steppe from Kazakhstan, east through Mongolia to Sinkiang, China, and possibly to southern Siberia (Nowak 1999). Soon after their discovery by Western scientists in 1879, they suffered steep declines from heavy hunting, and were crowded out of much of their habitat by growing numbers of livestock; by 1950, they had become confined to southwestern Mongolia and adjacent China (Nowak 1999). These last horses died out sometime after 1969, the year they were last seen, and subsequent searches for them proved fruitless (Nowak 1999).
Fortunately, some Przewalski's horses were taken into captivity and shipped to Europe early in the 20th century. The captive horses bred, providing animals to restock their original habitat. Many zoos now have small numbers of these horses, with a total captive population of about 1,000 (Nowak 1999). During the late 1990s, about 100 horses, now in their 13th to 15th generation in captivity, were released in the Hustain Nuruu Reserve southwest of Mongolia's capital city, Ulan Bator (Possehl 1995). They are being heavily guarded by herders, and despite some anxiety that they would not be able to adjust to living in the wild, they have shown every sign of adapting to their new environment. Stallions immediately began competing for harems of mares, and they seem to be exhibiting the natural traits of other wild horses.