“The Saiga Antelope is a symbol of the Eurasian steppe for the nomadic people it shares its habitat with, and has been an important source of inspiration for centuries.”
London, 26 April: UK charity Whitley Fund for Nature (WFN) is recognising Albert Salemgareyev from Kazakhstan with a 2023 Whitley Award for his conservation work with the saiga antelope, a keystone species of the Central Asian steppe grasslands, whose population has rebounded to a record high. His project will address the emerging conflict between saiga and pastoralists amid a scarcity of water that could threaten this global conservation success story.
WFN Patron, HRH The Princess Royal, will present the prestigious £40,000 prize to Albert and five other winners on 26 April at the Royal Geographical Society in a ceremony that also marks the 30th anniversary of the Whitley Fund for Nature, livestreamed to YouTube.
WFN Trustee Sir David Attenborough said that the work of conservationists has never been more urgent: “We need the work of Whitley Award winners to succeed and to help them to whatever extent possible.”
Kazakhstan’s vast sprawling steppe landscapes are a globally important carbon store and home to 95 percent of the world’s population of the Critically Endangered saiga. In a spectacular comeback, the saiga now number 1.3 million individuals after falling to a low of 50,000 in 2006. A catastrophic bacterial infection subsequently wiped out over 200,000 individuals in just three weeks, in one of the most dramatic declines ever recorded for a mammal.
Unique among antelopes for having large downward facing nostrils that both cool the extremely hot summer air and equally warm the freezing winter air, the saiga is potentially under threat again close to the country’s newest protected area as human-wildlife conflict flares. The areas around the 657,000-hectare Bokey Orda State Nature Reserve and Ashiozek State Nature Sanctuary contain important grazing grounds and water resources for the livestock of local pastoralists. This is leading to competition across the steppe landscapes with the migratory saiga that move in herds of tens of thousands and which also rely on the region’s freshwater resources, which they congregate near to give birth.
Albert, who is Lead Specialist at the Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity of Kazakhstan (ACBK) has a history of success where his research has contributed to the creation of more than four million hectares of protected land across Kazakhstan, including the new sites of Bokey Orda and Ashiozek.
Through this project, he will seek to understand the nature of the emerging conflict affecting the Ural saiga population and the estimated 300 pastoralists living in the landscape around the Bokey Orda and Ashiozek Protected Areas. Amid calls for hunting of saiga to resume to control rising populations, Albert and his team aim to drive consensus and find sustainable solutions in a new community approach for Kazakhstan to include all stakeholders: the pastoralists, staff of the Protected Area as well as local government and civil society organisations.
“Emerging human-wildlife conflict between saiga and local pastoralists and farmers is requiring an urgent attention, but the solutions are not easy or quick.”
Kazakhstan’s vast western desert-steppe ecosystems are especially vulnerable to climate change. The country’s work to conserve and restore its steppe which spans 750,000 square kilometres was recognised by the United Nations in December as a World Restoration Flagship, one of only ten pioneering efforts to revive the natural world. However, anthropogenic and climate stresses are expected to contribute to significant water scarcity in Kazakhstan within a decade, according to the World Bank.
Albert’s project will map the distribution and management practices of all major water resources that are vital for supporting life on the steppe and combine this with existing data on both livestock and saiga distribution in relation to those water resources. Focusing on 15 hotspots, Albert and his team will gather scientific evidence and consult with local stakeholders to better understand the conflict, and then build trust among pastoralists, Protected Area staff and local government in the data that has been gathered. Together, these stakeholders will co-design strategies for sustainable resource management, and share their findings widely to inform saiga conservation across Kazakhstan and into neighbouring countries.
One of the oldest surviving species of “the mammoth fauna” that inhabited a vast area of cold steppes from the British Isles in the west to China in the east, saiga help revitalize the steppe by grazing steppe grasses, spreading plant seeds and moving nutrients through the landscape.
The saiga survived the Ice Age and now global warming: “Surviving in difficult natural and climatic conditions allows saiga to remain the most important species in steppe, semi-desert and desert ecosystems,” according to Albert. “These ecosystems must be protected and restored, and their nature and natural resources used sustainably in the future.”
HIGH-RES IMAGES AVAILABLE HERE.
NOTES TO EDITORS – WHITLEY FUND FOR NATURE
- Whitley Fund for Nature (WFN) is a UK charity supporting grassroots conservation leaders in the Global South. Over 30 years it has channelled £20 million to more than 200 conservationists across 80 countries.
- An early pioneer in the sector, WFN was one of the first charities to channel funding directly to projects led by in-country nationals. Its rigorous application process identifies inspiring individuals who combine the latest science with community-based action, to benefit biodiversity, climate and people.
- WFN’s flagship prizes – Whitley Awards – are presented by Patron, HRH The Princess Royal, at a prestigious annual ceremony in London. Winners receive funding, training and media profile including films narrated by Trustee, Sir David Attenborough.
- The 2023 Whitley Awards Ceremony is on Wednesday 26 April at the Royal Geographical Society, streamed live to YouTube from 8pm BST. The 2023 Whitley Award winners are:
- Yuliana Bedolla in Mexico who is protecting marine bird life from invasive species on the Baja California Pacific islands
- Tulshi Laxmi Suwal is a world expert on pangolins who plans to conduct Nepal’s first forest fire impact assessment on pangolins, the most traded mammal in the world.
- Mamy Razafitsalama is working to improve livelihoods and reduce forest fires in Madagascar, which has lost nearly half of its forest cover and where one-third of the country’s 110 lemur species are now Critically Endangered
- Serge Alexis Kamgang in Cameroon will expand the only lion-focussed project in the Bénoué ecosystem where lion numbers have fallen to just 250
- Albert Salemgareyev in Kazakhstan plans to find sustainable solutions to emerging conflict between saiga antelope and local pastoralists over water resources in the country’s newest protected area
- Leonard Akwany in Kenya works in Lake Victoria where native fish species have more than halved to 200 and local livelihoods are threatened. He plans to create community managed protected areas to allow fish populations to recover.
- Every year, a past Whitley Award winner is chosen to receive the Whitley Gold Award, worth £100,000, in recognition of their outstanding contribution to conservation. Joining the Judging Panel, the Whitley Gold Award recipient also acts as a mentor to Whitley Award winners and an international ambassador for conservation success. The 2023 Whitley Gold Award winner is Kenyan conservationist Shivani Bhalla, recognised for her community-led work to secure a future for lions in northern Kenya.
- whitleyaward.org, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, LinkedIn
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