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This article is one of a series linked to Wild Russia, a project to portray the wild and beautiful landscapes of Russia's protected areas system over the Internet. Wild Russia is managed by the Center for Russian Nature Conservation (CRNC) with support from the Jon Sachs Foundation, the Adeline Morrison Family Foundation, Arts and Advocacy and Turner Foundations. Center Media generously provides technical support for the website. Log on to www.wild-russia.org to view images from Cherny Zemly Zapovednik along with a dozen others.

In Search of the Saiga Antelope

by Laura Williams

Recently on assignment for the Wild Russia project, photographer Igor Shpilenok and I set out from our home in the Bryansk Forest for the Cherny Zemly Zapovednik in Kalmykia, notable for its role in protecting habitat for the saiga antelope (Saiga tatarica). Often called steppe (or plain) for the endlessly flat landscape, the terrain in Kalmykia is actually classified as semi-desert. Our mission was to capture on film images of the nature reserve and its wildlife, in particular, the unusual saiga antelope.

After two days of driving in our jeep, we arrived in Kalmykia, where the flat plain stretched out before us without a tree in sight. Soon we encountered a run down assemblage of small buildings made from large bricks of clay, grass, and packed sheep dung called kizyak. A herd of about thirty sheep grazed on sparse vegetation a hundred feet away. We asked the shepherd living there for directions to the Cherny Zemly and headed off. Within minutes, we found ourselves lost in a tangle of roads. The shepherd caught up to us on a small motorcycle and sent us down the correct road. In the following weeks, we learned to find our way along the dusty maze of roads by making mental notes of landmarks: an eagle's nest on a raised mound here or the crumbling remnants of a kizyak-clay house there.

After about 30 miles, we noticed what looked like birds flying low over the plain up ahead. As we came closer, we realized that it was a herd of saiga antelopes, gliding effortlessly across the flat steppe. A dozen or so saiga stopped to look at us, then took off again and were gone. Our first saiga encounter!

Soon we came to the run down ranger station, where three houses stood made of the same kizyak-clay mixture. A ranger came out to greet us. We shared our excitement at having just seen a herd of saiga. He laughed and said "You should have been here last week. Forty thousand of them passed by the station. We sat and watched the flock go by for two and a half hours." I noticed that he said "flocks" and not herd. We, too, had thought they had seemed to fly.

The ranger was a Kalmyk; his dark skin stretched over wide cheekbones, topped by narrow slits for eyes. He looked Mongolian. In fact, the Kalmykian people came from Mongolia more than three hundred years ago to this dry spit of land between the Caspian and Azov seas. The people were historically nomadic, herding their sheep, cows, horses, and camels to new pastures as the seasons changed. The Kalmykians, who traditionally observe Buddhism, settled down in the 1920s and 1930s when the communist regime forced them into collective farms. The entire population of Kalmykia was resettled to Siberia in the mid-1940s by Stalin. Only about 50 percent of these Kalmyks returned to their homeland a decade later.

Although Kalmykia is bordered by seas on either side, the republic suffers from lack of water. Chronic drought coupled with blazing summer heat literally scorches the grassy plain, turning it black (hence the name Cherny Zemly, which means "black lands"). Everyone in the region gets a 30 percent bonus on top of their salaries for living in "waterless" conditions. The rangers at the Zapovednik have their water hauled in and dumped in a well-like basin lined with cement. Even some of the larger towns have to have their water trucked in.

The next morning, we set out to comb the landscape for saiga. We drove to the western edge of the reserve, where one of the rangers said he had seen saiga the day before. Suddenly, I spotted a dark object on the dirt road ahead of us. We came closer and saw that it was a large gray wolf (Canus lupis). Upon seeing us, he veered off the road in a gallop, disappearing into the grassy plain. Saiga meat makes up the bulk of the wolf's diet in Kalmykia. This portly wolf was probably on his way back from a night of stalking the animals, so we sensed that saiga were near.

We turned down a road that led along a dry canal, one of the many scars left over from failed attempts to bring water to the region. Within half a mile, we spotted something moving through the reeds on the other side of the canal. We stopped the jeep quietly and crept up to the edge of the low ridge of the canal. Over a thousand saiga were peacefully grazing on the low grasses no more than 200 feet away. They hadn't noticed us, so we sat silently and watched. It was the first time I had seen the animals up close. I caught one in my binoculars and saw that it had a small, squarish body on skinny legs. When it lifted its head to sniff the wind, I saw that it had a bulbous hump on its long, soft nose. A ranger later explained to me that the trunk-like nose filters out dust when the animal is running across the dry plain. The antelope I was looking at was a male and had short, spiky horns, yellowish with black rings at the base. I turned slightly and focused on a female. She had no horns, which made her large eyes look as though they protruded from her head like giant black orbs.

Then I sneezed. A thousand heads went up in unison and - within seconds - all that was visible was the whites of their rumps, bobbing above the grasses as the entire herd sped away. Saiga antelopes can run up to 60 miles per hour to escape danger. They are afraid of anything that moves - even each other. The herds always run into the wind to catch the smell of predators. They can travel hundreds of miles in one day, and two days later return to the same place they started from.

The saiga's main enemies are wolves and humans, even though hunting saiga is illegal in Kalmykia. Scientists believe that there are around 55,000 saiga in Kalmykia, and about 500,000 worldwide (the remainder are in Kazahkstan and Mongolia). Saiga numbers in Kalmykia have dropped drastically in the past decade: in 1996, there were 220,000 saiga in Kalmykia. Most of the local experts blame wolves, which are said to kill about 65 percent of the population each year. Although data are scarce, poaching has undoubtedly had an impact on saiga numbers, too. Olga Bukreeva, the Head Warden at the Department for Protection, Monitoring, and Management of Game Animals of Kalmykia, says that as much as one-quarter of the saiga population of the republic is killed by poachers each year. In response, the Department created a patrol group to protect the saiga in Kalmykia. The patrol group makes rounds in jeeps and by helicopter, but actually catches only around 300-350 poachers per year.

Cherny Zemly Zapovednik has nearly a dozen rangers charged with protecting the saiga, but their efforts are hindered by the lack of transportation and communication equipment and low salaries. The bulk of the poachers near the reserve come from local villages to hunt the animals in order to feed their families. These people know the terrain well, and can easily outrun the inspectors on their motorcycles. I recalled the shepherd who skillfully sped over the rough plain on his motorbike to show us the way to the reserve.

However, these poaching incidents cannot even compare with the saiga massacre that occurred two years ago. Saiga herds often migrate to the south for two to three weeks in the winter. In December 1998, over 100,000 saiga went south, crossing into Dagestan. Several weeks later, only a few small groups returned to Kalmykia. Witnesses in Dagestan said the snow was red from the saiga slaughter. Olga's Department made an official inquiry to the Dagestan Government, but never received a reply.

We spent another week searching for saiga, but never got closer to the animals than that first day at the canal. Once home, we vowed to return to photograph the saiga next year, at the same time relieved to be back in the land of water and trees.

Laura Williams is a Fulbright Scholar and writer for the Wild Russia website. Laura lives with her husband Igor Shpilenok in the Bryansk Forest Zapovednik. Igor is one of the primary photographers for Wild Russia.

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