Coming home: the kulan of Central Kazakhstan

The Turkmenian kulan is a subspecies of onager, or Asiatic wild ass, native to Central Asia. And though it may not look it – with a diminutive frame 200-250 cm long and 100-140 cm tall – it is actually one of the largest onagers in the world.

There was a time when the ’s distinctive light brown coat with patches of white on its on belly, back and sides was a familiar sight out upon the deserts, deltas and steppes between northern Afghanistan, southern Siberia and western China.

But in recent years, its story has taken a sad turn.

Turkmenian Kulan © Petra Kaczensky
Kulan © Petra Kaczensky

The combined threats of illegal hunting and habitat loss has dramatically limited its population size and distribution areas – and from some locations, it has disappeared entirely. In 2016, the full extent of its sad decline was hammered home when the IUCN marked it globally Endangered on its Red List.

In Kazakhstan, our BirdLife partner ACBK has recently started work on a project to establish a new population in Central Asia.[1] The project, coordinated by the Norwegian Institute of Nature Research, aspires to not only make the species more stable, but to help restore the natural ecosystems of the Central steppe.[2]

Turkmenian Kulan © Daniel Rosengren

According to a 2017 survey, the total Kazakh population of Turkmenian stands at 3,900 animals, of which 3,400 reside in Altyn Emel National Park – the biggest population of this subspecies in the world. But the park’s territory is limited and Altyn Emel is struggling to cope with the herd’s growth, leading to potential outbreaks of disease and competition with other species. Conservationists came to the conclusion that something had to be done.

In late October, ACBK successfully moved the first nine from Altyn Emel national park to Altyn Dala nature reserve in Central Kazakhstan. The chosen nine were carefully selected by expert zoologists and veterinarians from a group of 50 kulan rounded-up by ACBK together with the Altyn Emel park rangers and the state-run Okhotzooprom. Precise measures were taken to ensure safety and minimise stress levels during the big move – each animal was sedated and put into a special box for transport upon a Mi-26T – the world’s biggest helicopter – run by the Kazakh airline Kazaviaspas.

© Daniel Rosengren

And so they embarked for the Turgai steppe. At the beginning of the 19th century, the lived in this region, and were still to be found roaming along the river Uly-Zhylanshyk until the 1930s. Today, its relief, vegetation and water access still provide the perfect ecological requirements for the kulan to thrive. And it is here, in the two state nature reserves, Altyn Dala and Irgiz-Turgai, where they will make their new home.

© Albert Salemgareev

For the time being, the nine animals will be well looked-after in a purpose-built centre set up by ACBK. Then, in the spring, they will be released to the wild. It is hoped that these first nine ‘adventurers’ will be joined by a further 30 animals in 2018 and 2019.

Danara Zharbolova–Head of Communications,ACBK/BirdLife

[1] The reintroduction project is coordinated by the Norwegian Institute of Nature Research and implemented by ACBK/BirdLife Kazakhstan in partnership with the Committee of Forestry and Wildlife of the Kazakh Ministry of Agriculture, the RSPB/BirdLife UK, the Frankfurt Zoological Society and Nuremberg Zoo. The main funding is provided by the Fondation Segré and Nuremberg Zoo.

[2] The project part of the wider Altyn Dala Conservation Initiative (ACDI) – a joint initiative from ACBK, the CFW, Fauna & Flora International, FZS, and RSPB.

This article was first published by on 21 Dec 2017.


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