and at Wild Wonders of Europe Blog.
It is time for my readers to take a little break from bears and visit new places, where the bears do not live.
Exactly a year ago my son, Petr, and I went to Kalmykiya steppe to find and photograph the saiga antelope, the only antelope in Europe, for international photo-project Wild Wonders of Europe ( WWE). . And today I'm publishing the story from this trip (also you can view my report on WWE website).
Abandoned farm-house in the middle of steppe.
Morning white frost on wild tulip.
Another species of wild toulips.
Dwarf irises in the steppes.
Also dwarf irises, but of different color.
Evening feathergrass Stipa spp. Feathergrass glows in the sunset in the steppes
Only steppe is everywhere around us… We are in Kalmykia, at the southeastern edge of Europe – just under 2,000 km from Moscow and about 100 km from the Caspian Sea. The Kalmykian steppes were once the bottom of the Caspian Sea.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, saiga still inhabited the vast steppes of Europe from the Volga to the Dniester river. By the middle of last century, saiga remained only where wild steppes were preserved, in the lowlands near the Caspian Sea on the bank of the Volga River. But at the time, their numbers – up to 800,000 – was not yet cause for alarm to ensure a viable population and sustainable future for the animals.
But the fall of the Soviet Union turned out to be catastrophic for saiga’s wellbeing. The iron curtain opened, borders were relaxed. Poaching became a serious threat to the saiga – sought for for their horns, and used in traditional Chinese medicine. Today, the number of the entire European population does not exceed 18,000, and because most of the poachers target males, male saigas make up only 1-10% of the population These numbers are too low to guarantee their survival. The saiga antelope is on the verge of extinction.
It is not easy to photograph an animal whose population is depressed. We wheel about the Caspian steppes for the second week in a row and have so far only once seen a herd of 12 saigas two kilometres away running from us at full speed. And saigas are fast. They can run at speeds up to 60 km/hour across the flat steppe. Naturally, we worry – will we be able to fulfill the Wild Wonders of Europe mission? Will we find a large number of antelopes? Will we be able to get close enough to them to photograph them?
Saigas are our mail goal. But the spring steppe is more than just saigas. We were lucky, as we got here in time for the spring bloom of Wild Tulips (Tulipa schrenkii) and Dwarf Iris (Iris pumila). An unforgettable experience! Millions of bright flowers scattered around the steppe. Most of them are bright red, but sometimes we find white, yellow, and purple flowers. The climate is dry continental here; it is cold in the morning, can go down to 10 degrees C below zero and the tulips cover in frost, their tender stalks freeze. We freeze too, as we spend most of our nights out in the steppe, in the car or a tent. But by noon, the sun warms the steppe to 15-20 degrees above zero and the tulips thaw out. So do we.
The birds are in their mating season. Thousands of larks are singing, Little Bustards (Otis tetrax) dance their mating rituals, and Common- and Ruddy Shelducks (Tadorna todorna, T. ferruginea) rest outside abandoned fox dens. Each day we see several dozens of pairs of Demoiselle Crane, which are now occupying their nesting territories.
A European brown hare in the morning steppe.
Steppe eagle on its nest
Steppe eagle chicks.
Demoiselle crane in the evening light.
A few days ago, we settled into the ranger cabin at Atsan-Khuduk in the Cherniye Zemly (Black Lands) Nature Reserve, from where we will continue our search for the saiga...
When we departed on Our Wild Wonders of Europe mission to Kalmykia, my son Petya forgot to pack a travel mug and only realized it when already in the remote steppe. In the beginning, Petya and I had to drink tea from one cup. But even in the remote steppe, Petya managed to win a set of six teacups!
On May 9, a scientist at the nature reserve named Khongor Mandzhiev invited us to his Kalmykian native town of Adyk, about 100 kms from our field camp via steppe roads.
There was double cause for celebration in Adyk – it was Victory Day, when the Russians mark the end of WWII and it was also the 400-year anniversary of Kalmykia’s decision to become part of the Russian Empire. The Kalmyk people arrived here to Europe from Central Asia to the Volga River more than 400 years ago, but have managed to preserve not only their original culture and Mongolian features, but their traditional Buddhist beliefs as well.
Petya amoung Kalmyks at the celebration in Adyk.
The festivities took place at the edge of the village, where several hundred people were gathered. We arrived to find a theatrical presentation underway about the joint history of the Kalmykian and Russian people. There was ethnic dancing and songs, as well as horse races and wrestling contests. Then they announced a weightlifting contest. The participants had to lift a 30-kilo weight. The first place prize was a set of crystal wine glasses, the second place prize was a set of regular wine glasses, and for third place – a set of tea cups.
Tea cups were exactly what Petya needed! I told him – this is your chance to drink tea out of your own cup! He tried to refuse, but Khongor and I pushed him toward the weight.
Kalmykian girls began to applaud encouragingly. Petya couldn’t back down now, but he also didn’t want the first or second place prizes – he had no need for wine glasses in the steppe. He lifted the 30-kilo weight 40 times, calculating exactly how many times he needed to win third place. A minute later, he was holding a set of six tea cups.
On the evening of May 9, we are returning from the festival in Adyk. When we are about 20 kms from the preserve, our car ascends a low sandy ridge and a green valley opens before us, lit by the soft evening sun. Our eyes immediately fall on a herd of about 100 saigas, which are racing at top speed with three motorcycles in close pursuit. Poachers! They notice our car atop the hill and, without letting up speed, turn in different directions, just like market thieves.
The saigas continue their fatal run out of the preserve, top the ridge we are standing on, and run along the highway between Elista and Astrakhan, as though they are running head to head with the cars racing down the highway.
I take several shots of the saiga antelopes racing along the road. I see through the 300 mm lens that they are males with horns. Horns are what the poachers are after. Khongor is able to contact the ranger patrol by cell phone, who are in ambush on the northern border of the reserve buffer zone, and the rangers arrive about 10 minutes later. We examine the tracks in the grass. One set of tracks leads to a shepherd’s dwelling, where a sport bike is standing and the engine is still hot.
A young dusty man from the Caucasus heartily milks a cow and says “I just herded the cows in from the steppe, that’s why the bike is still warm.” Unfortunately, the rights of the rangers end at the border of the buffer zone. They call the local police officer, but he was indisposed at the time, having left for the district centre over 100 kms away. The tracks of another motorcycle lead to the gates of another shepherd ‘s dwelling, and the third emerges onto the paved road from the steppe near the village of Kholkhuta.
So, ironic as though it may be, poachers helped me to take my first photograph of the saigas. And hopefully, my presence at the scene was enough to win them enough time to get back to the safety of the Cherniye Zemly Nature Reserve.