TRADITIONAL KNOWLEDGE AND MODERN TECHNOLOGY
Chernyje Zemli Biosphere Reserve and its role in the conservation of biodiversity in dryland ecosystems
Victor Badmaev and Boris Ubushaev, Chernyje Zemli Biosphere
Chernyje Zemli Biosphere Reserve, established by UNESCO’s Man and the Biosphere programme in 1993, is situated in the Pre-Caspian lowland with its main territory bordering the Ramsar site of Lake Manych-Gudilo. The reserve occupies two separate areas in the Republic of Kalmykia. The larger portion (91,000 ha) lies in the administrative regions of Komsomolskoye and Yashkule, protecting the semi-desert plains of the near-Caspian lowlands. A buffer zone of 56,000 ha surrounds this portion of the reserve, lying at an elevation of 24 m below sea level, as this region was once at the bottom of the Caspian Sea.Chernyje Zemli, meaning ‘black lands’ in Russian, gets its name from the fact that strong winter winds blow away most of the snow cover, and the lands look black and barren.While winters are cold and harsh, with temperatures dropping as low as –30 °C, snow cover is moderate to sparse. Summers, on the other hand, are hot and dry.Temperatures soar above 40 °C throughout the summer, and hot winds drive over the endless plain. Rain is scarce, and even the rangers have to transport their drinking water into the reserve.
The second, smaller section (30,900 ha) of the Chernyje Zemli Reserve is located in the very northwest corner of the Kalmykia Republic on Lake Manych-Gudilo, locally known as the Proletarskoye Reservoir. Water from the reservoir flows into the Don River, which then leads to the Azov Sea. The lake is long and narrow, covering an area of 344 km2, with an average depth of only half a metre. Its southeastern shore is protected in the Chernyje Zemli Biosphere Reserve by a buffer zone of 34,000 ha. This section is markedly different from the dry plain in the protected territory in the centre of Kalmykia. Water is abundant everywhere, but the lake is so saline from runoff and the lack of freshwater inlets that hardly any fish can survive. The numerous small islands near the shore are safe places for bird colonies, although the birds have to fly to freshwater bodies to feed. Rolling hills line the lakeshore, sloping off gradually into the shallow, silty waters of the reservoir.
The fauna of the Chernyje Zemli Biosphere Reserve comprise twenty-two species of fish, three species of amphibians, thirteen species of reptiles, 219 species of birds and thirty-one species of mammals.The reserve was created primarily to conserve important breeding and calving grounds of the unique saiga (Saiga tatarica).This small antelope with a rather squarish body on thin legs can run over the plain at speeds of up to 80 km an hour. It has a odd looking hump on its long, soft nose, which filters out dust as it runs across the dry steppe. The antelope has large black eyes that protrude slightly from its head. The males have short spiky horns, yellowish in colour, with black rings near the base.
Hunted for their meat and horns, which are used in stomach remedies in oriental medicine, saiga have declined dramatically in number during the latter part of the twentieth century. Some experts say that the main reason for the decline is the inordinate number of wolves (Canis lupus) in the region, which prey on young and sick animals. Habitat loss due to the cultivation of steppe lands has also taken its toll. As a result, the saiga is now listed in CITES Appendix II, and hunting in Kalmykia has been halted. Surveys of saiga have been conducted, and conservation measures and public awareness activities in the Republic of Kalmykia have received support from organizations such as the Darwin Initiative ‘Using saiga antelope conservation to improve rural livelihoods’, the People’s Trust for Endangered Species, Large Herbivore Foundation, Denver Zoological Society and Chicago Zoological Society.
The European hare (Lepus europaeus) and eared hedgehog (Erinaceus auritus) are smaller mammals found in the protected steppe of Chernyje Zemli Nature Reserve. The long-legged corsac fox (Vulpes corsac) trots across the level plain in search of rodents, sometimes catching the equally long-legged jerboas. Three species of jerboas are found here: the great, small five-toed and Northern three-toed jerboa (Allactaga major, A. elater, Dipus sagitta).
The territorial range of the endangered marbled polecat (Vormela peregusna) has been shrinking over the past 200 years due to grazing and cultivation of prairies. The Caspian Sea and Caucasus region, where the Chernyje Zemli Biosphere Reserve is located, is one of only two areas where the marbled polecat is still found in Russia; the other is in the Altai foothills in Western Siberia. The rather large polecat, with a long bushy tail and light-coloured mask on its face, has an effective way of defending itself from foxes and wolves. It stands up on its hind legs, throws its furry tail up in the air, displays its vicious set of fangs and growls like a dog. This display and the foul odour emanating from the polecat’s glands are often enough to deter any would-be predators. A filling meal for the marbled polecat consists of hamsters (Cricetulus spp.), voles (Microtus spp.) or pygmy ground squirrels – also called sousliks (Spermophilus pygmaeus). The sandycoloured ground squirrels dig elaborate dens in the steppe, where colonies of several families live together. Ground squirrels feed on seeds and grasses while keeping watch for predators. When it senses danger, a ground squirrel stands up on its hind legs and gives out a long whistle, sending all the others underground within seconds.
Ground squirrels are also the favoured prey of many hunting birds in the Kalmykian steppe. Twelve species of raptors are found in the reserve, including rare steppe eagles (Aquila nipalensis) and imperial eagles (A. heliaca). Long-legged buzzards (Buteo rufinus) build their nests on mounds of earth left from old settlements and burial grounds, often bringing pieces of saiga fur into the nest for bedding. White-tailed sea eagles (Haliaeetus albicilla) soar above the steppe, hundreds of miles from the sea. Four kinds of harriers (Circus spp.) frequent the reserve, flying low over the plain in search of prey. Egyptian vultures (Neophron percnopterus), cinereous vultures (Aegypius monachus), and Eurasian griffons (Gyps fulvus) flock to the saiga birthing grounds to feed on helpless saiga calves, minutes after they are born. Endangered worldwide, the demoiselle crane (Anthropoides virgo) is oddly one of the most visible birds in the steppe. Smaller than the common crane, this rare bird is one of the most beautiful of the crane species. Its body is dove-grey in colour, with long black feathers on its chest, wings, and tail. Brilliant white wisps of feathers stream off the back of its slender black head like a ponytail. Beady red eyes are set a little above the base of its bright yellow beak. The birds, which mate for life, stay near their nest in spring, a bare indentation in the earth with two large, greenish eggs with reddish-brown spots.
The other section of the Chernyje Zemli Reserve, along the edge of the saline Manych-Gudilo Reservoir in northeastern Kalmykia, is a haven for nesting shorebirds. The rare Eurasian spoonbill (Platalea leucorodia), with a rounded shovel-like tip at the end of its long, reddish bill, feeds on insects and molluscs in silty soils near the shore. Rare Eastern white pelicans (Pelecanus crispus), listed in the Russian Red Book, nest in colonies of up to 400 pairs. Dalmatian pelicans (P. onocrotalus) are much less numerous; only five pairs nested in the reserve in 1997. Great cormorants (Phalacrocorax carbo) also nest in large colonies on islands of Lake Manych-Gudilo. Great and little egrets (Egretta alba, E. garzetta) build their nests up with dead reeds on islands, flying to bodies of freshwater to feed on small fish, frogs and insects. Herring gulls (Larus argentatus) make their nests alongside the egrets, often preying on their helpless chicks. Whooper swans (Cygnus cygnus), mute swans (Cygnus olor), ruddy shelducks (Tadorna ferruginea) and others are among the 202 species of birds found in Chernyje Zemli Reserve. Amphibians and reptiles in the reserve include the toad-headed and spotted toad agama (Phrynocephalus mystaceus, P. guttatus), rapid fringed-toed lizard and steppe runner (Ememias velox, E. arguta), sand boa (Eryx jaculus), Montpellier snake (Malpolon monphlessianus) and Renard’s viper (Vipera ursini).
According to the inventory,the flora in the Biosphere Reserve consists of 245 species of vascular plants.The endlessly flat and unbroken plain – or steppe – stretches to the horizon in every direction. Not a single tree breaks up the wide-open space. In spring, the brownish steppe is transformed into a carpet of greenish-grey grasses. The red, white and yellow flowers of rare tulips (Tulipa biebersteiniana, T. biflora, T. schrenkii) bring a sprinkling of colour to the unvaried plain.White tufts of feathergrass (Stipa capillata, S. lessingiana, S. zalesskii) sway in the summer breeze. Bulbous bluegrass (Poa bulbosa) grows beneath the dangling pennants of downy chess (Bromus tectorum) and rare Japanese brome (Bromus japonicus). The sweet smell of wormwood (Artemisia tschernieviana, A. austriaca, A. pauciflora, A. salina, A. lerchiana) wafts over the open plain in spring and summer. Ground squirrels eagerly tear open the green tops of oriental eremopyrum (Eremopyrum orientale) to get at the tender seeds inside. These species,along with sword-flag (Iris pumila), mullein (Verbascum austriacum), and groundsel (Senecio noemus) are some of the 179 types of plants found in the reserve.
Before the biosphere reserve was created, the dry steppe lands were under constant grazing pressure from sheep, cows and horses. Some 4 million sheep once grazed on the open plain. As a result of overgrazing, many lands were stripped bare of vegetation and began to turn into deserts. Blowing sand piled up in long mounds, which moved over time. Although protection and re-cultivation of the steppe has allowed vegetation to regenerate gradually on some lands, 25,000 ha, or nearly a third of this section of the reserve, is still covered with bare soils and sand dunes.
The conservation of necessary habitat for the saiga antelope is perhaps the most important function of the Chernyje Zemli Reserve. However, saiga roam over large areas, and can cover several hundred kilometres a day. Once the herds leave the reserve, poachers pursue the herds on motorcycles and by car, sometimes shooting dozens of animals in one night. A national body – the Department for Conservation, Monitoring, and Management of Game Resources of the Republic of Kalmykia – is responsible for protecting the species outside of the reserve, but its rangers cannot always be in the right place at the right time. During breeding and calving seasons, the saigas generally return to the reserve, where they are granted protection from poachers. However, wolves are also protected there; these numerous predators inflict considerable harm on saiga populations, especially by preying on the young immediately following their birth.
About 1,400 people live within the buffer and transition zones of the biosphere reserve and their income comes mainly from cattle breeding and irrigated cultivation of different crops, vegetables and melons. Constant long-term monitoring of the steppe ecosystems carried out by the biosphere reserve now provides information on the remarkable rehabilitation of the previously degraded vegetation cover within the reserve. The biosphere reserve staff undertake measures to help local people in alternative income generation and in speeding up the rehabilitation of used pastures, and in general attempt to alleviate poverty.
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