The kulan (Asiatic wild ass) is the only odd-toed ungulate left in the wild in northern Eurasia, the sole remaining relative of the millions of tarpans, wild asses, and horses that once roamed the open expanses of the continent. Smaller and stouter than domesticated horses, the kulan is the swiftest of all equids, capable of reaching speeds of 70 kilometers per hour for brief periods and sustaining a pace of 50 kilometers per hour. Kulans feed on grasses and low succulent plants, thriving in flat desert plains of Central Asia. Nonetheless, kulans require favorable feeding grounds in winter and adequate water in the hot summer, needs which may lead entire herds to travel considerable distances every year. The animal’s survival has presented a challenge to conservationists in Turkmenistan, who have actively worked to save the species since it neared the brink of extinction in the middle of the last century, and recently almost repeated that fate.
By 1941, no more than 200 kulans comprised the only population in Badkhyz Zapovednik, a reserve founded that year in the Turkmenistan. Despite the protection of the zapovednik, this population continued to decrease until 1955, falling to 120-150 animals. At this time, scientists and Soviet officials made their first attempts at restoring the species to its historical range: they transferred 14 kulans from Badkhyz to Barsa-Kelmes Island in the Aral Sea, which spans the border between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Between 1957 and the early 1980s the number of kulans grew to about 2000 in Badkhyz and 200 on Barsa-Kelmes Island.
The relocation program expanded between 1979 and 1989, sending more than 100 kulans from Badkhyz to eight areas within the historical range of the species in Turkmenistan. In total, by 1996-1997 there were more than 500-700 kulans in Kazakhstan and about 6,000 kulans in Turkmenistan. Of the latter about 5,000 lived in Badkhyz Zapovednik and about 1,000 in artificially restored populations elsewhere in Turkmenistan.
Nevertheless, as the tragic desiccation of the Aral Sea continues, conservationists worried that the main population of kulans in Kazakhhstan has neither real protection, nor a good source of drinking water. Even so, the situation seems to be satisfactory and even good in some areas. Although the desiccation of the sea has turned Barsa-Kelmes Island into a peninsula about 100 kulans still live in the Barsa-Kelmes Nature Reserve. Another 35 were reintroduced to the Aktau-Buzachinsky Sanctuary in 1991, which have grown to a population of more than 100 on the Mangishlak Peninsula. Between 1986 and 1990, 105 kulans were reintroduced to the Andasai Sancturary, and have since spread all over the surrounding area to total around 200. In 1984, 32 kulans were reintroduced to the Kapchagai Game Area, which subsequently became the Altyn-Emel National Park (over 50,000,000 hectares in area). According to the last census more than 700 animals currently live there.
But even as the active reintroduction program stabilized the population in Kazakhstan and made important progress in saving the species, a new problem arose in Turkmenistan as kulans began to leave the borders of nature reserves. In the 1990s, kulans could often be found on agricultural fields, harming wheat crops in a time of local famine. One appraisal of the damage calculated losses at about $5,000 for one village in 1995, although the exact amount is probably lower. Nonetheless, at that time the yearly income of an average family was about $100-150, so the significance of the financial loss caused by the kulans’ grazing should not be underestimated.
The problem in Badkhyz stems from the kulans’ summer migrations for watering places. The River Kushka, the main summer watering place of Badkhys population, is situated away from the territory of zapovednik. Thus enormous herds of kulans are forced to migrate through agricultural lands and spend all of the hot, dry summer in a small area along the river. This makes the animals easy prey for poachers (one of the leading causes of the population’s decline). A series of droughts in recent years has exacerbated the problem. Grass developed poorly and natural watering places dried up, while artificial watering sites barely operated owing to equipment that was 25-30 years old. As a result, by April 2000 all the kulans had already left the safety of Badkhyz Zapovednik to go to the Kushka River watering points instead of waiting until July or August, when they usually migrate. Serious drought lead to a situation, when the carrying capacity of these pastures was sure to be unable to support the population, and the species seemed to be in even greater peril than before. From 5,000 animals in 1996, the population was halved by 1998, fell further to 1,500 in 1999, and dipped to just over 300 animals by the summer of 2000. In summer of 2000, a special group of rangers conducted intense observations in Badkhyz Zapovednik, paying special attention to natural and artificial watering places, and saw only about 300 of kulans in Badkhyz. Seventeen (out of 600) kulans remained in the Meana Chaacha Zakaznik, and 15 out of 150 in Annau (Kalininsky Sanctuary). No other data existed on the condition of the Turkmenistan populations, but hope remained that small groups of animals still resided in inaccessible areas around Badkhyz, and were thriving in the West Kopetdagh (Sumbar-Chandyr Valley) and Ustyurt Plateau around Lake Sarakamish.
There is no doubt that herds in Turkmenistan as a whole have followed a catastrophic downward spiral. This decline could have been largely prevented, had international help arrived earlier. As far back as 1992 and 1993, Turkmen specialists, environmental government agencies, and international experts had sounded an alarm, calling for scientific management of kulan populations with the aim of further reintroduction in suitable areas. As a nation that gained independence in 1991, Turkmenistan had neither experience nor the necessary funds for developing and implementing such a plan, so the demand for international help and financial support was great. The IUCN conducted many helpful surveys and analyses, but could not offer funding.
The first organization to react was Zoological Society for Conservation of Species and Populations in Munich, thanks to the personal efforts of Dr. Gertrud Neumann-Denzau. The Zoological Society donated some money for protecting the kulans in the critical period from May to October 2000 on their summer grounds, and continued similar help in 2001. Following a trip to Badkhyz in spring 2000, Dr. Hartmut Jungius, the WWF director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia, addressed different organizations searching for urgent help. Funds from the Thyll-Dürr Foundation allowed new water pumps to restore artificial watering places for animals in Badkhyz. In 2001 WWF gained an important donation for its three-year project was received, with additional help from Zoo Schönbrunn, Vienna, in autumn 2001 some addition help was received with the help of Dr. Patricia D. Moehlman (Chair IUCN/SSC Equid Specialist Group) from the Wildlife Trust. But the main positive role in the practical aspects of nature conservation belongs to the Ministry of Nature Protection of Turkmenistan, as any measures were possible only with its active participatory support.
This first year’s work has already shown some positive results. Rangers in Badkhyz Zapovednik have stepped up their patrols, and volunteer ranger groups have begun working seriously in regions surrounding the zapovednik. The Ministry of Nature Protection has helped to create a mobile group of rangers comprised of experts who work throughout the entire region. Both these rangers and the staff of the zapovednik now have vehicles, motorbikes and sets of harnesses and saddles for horses, radio-communications systems, and field equipment. This equipment allows them to track the kulans more effectively when they migrate to their summer pastures and watering places. Even the military has become involved, working with officers to control the activities of local subdivisions. To provide direct aid to the kulans themselves, a water-tank and four water-pumps were purchased (two for Badkhyz, two for Meana-Chaacha sanctuary), and four watering places for ungulates were repaired. These watering places attract animals to safer areas during the critical dry periods and allow scientists and rangers to observe the populations more thoroughly. Finally, work with the public has also begun, and became an important component of the project.
A special census was conducted in Badkhyz in July 2001 and there were about 600 animals already (those animals which survived but were widely dispersed in the surrounding returned to Badkhyz as soon as felt safe there). The number of newborns in the population was still very low (3,9%), as the population lived under unfavourable conditions last year during the reproductive season. But we specially pointed out that one of the most encouraging signs was the visibility of large herds of kulan, where earlier only small groups had been sighted. This concentration of animals, improvement of their habitats gave the result - already the next year there were more then 900 kulans in Badkhyz – with a lot of young animals surviving.
One of the important components of our work was protection of field from kulan’s damage. Rangers and volunteers on motorbikes accompanied kulans’ herds, moving to the watering places outside the territory of zapovednik – and lead them away from the field and vegetable gardens. Later animals learned new routs – and avoided agricultural areas on their own. This activity help to find some deep understanding between conservationists – and local communities.
Main funding of the project is over – some small support is arriving from different donors – but majority of the follow-up work is carried out by the staff of Badkhyz zapoverdnik under the supervision and leadership of the Ministry of Nature Protection. Still, there are other areas that require additional attention. An Action Plan for future kulan’s conservation and restoration in Turkmenistan is in the final stage of preparation. It includes follow-up work in Badkhyz – and all reintroduction sites –Ustyurt and Western Kopetdagh first of all. And, as important component, it includes measures on sustainable management of kulan’s population after it reaches optimum number: it is very important to avoid overpopulation, and to avoid damage from this wonderful animals to the local economy. All of the involved parties hope that together the progress made will ensure the future of this unique animal.