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Kazakhstan’s mountains are rich in wildlife, including bear, lynx, argali sheep, ibex, wolves, wild boar, deer, and the elusive snow leopard, of which perhaps only 30 remain in the Altay, the mountains south of Almaty and the Aksu-Zhabagyly Nature Reserve. Two types of antelope, the saiga and the goitred gazelle (zheyran), roam the steppe in much smaller numbers than they used to.

In 1867, the German zoologist Alfred Brehm, while exploring southern Siberia and Central Asia, found a true paradise in the area now known as Kazakhstan. Excited, he wrote in a report titled "On the tracks of the arkhar": "From the rocks, where Finsch's wheatear, Godlewski's bunting and red-fronted rosefinch carry on, the faint song of the stone thrush resounds, jackdaws swarm around the upper peaks, and above them circles the golden eagle by day, and soundlessly glides the Eurasian eagle-owl by night-both keen on catching the abundant rock partridge or a careless marmot. The most interesting of all is the arkhar... the argali in the words of the explorer, one of the giant mountain sheep of Central Asia, as tall as European red deer... They climb effortlessly up and down almost vertical slopes, jump wide crevasses and come down from on high, as though they could fly."

Unfortunately its nimbleness has not saved the argali from having been all but wiped out. These days, it is included in the Red List of Threatened Species under risk of extinction. It shares this fate with many other animals: the ram-snouted saiga antelope, the elegant dzheyran or goitred gazelle, the kulan (wild ass) and numerous birds of prey. There was little that Brehm could know then about the dangers threatening the snow leopard, the brown bear and even the wolf.

The causes of the decimation of so much of Kazakhstan's wildlife are manifold. First was the conversion of 25.5 million hectares of steppe-a surface equal to that of Great Britain-into agricultural territory in the 1950s and 1960s. This large-scale destruction of natural land, known as the Virgin Lands programme, irreversibly deprived many animals of their habitat. The grasslands of the kulan, saiga, dzheyran, fox, wolf, songbirds and birds of prey disappeared to make way for dubious monoculture. What had taken centuries to grow in the harsh climate of Central Asia was ploughed out within a decade. Even now that large-scale agriculture with chemical agents has ended, it will take decades before the original steppe vegetation, able to support large herds of antelope, gazelle, wild donkey and birds, can be restored.

Another cause for the virtual disappearance of many steppe animals is hunting, which once was-and still is, illegally-celebrated in true orgies of killing. The Kazakh and Russian passion for hunting has always been proverbial. But it was social need of the post- Soviet time that drove many inhabitants of Kazakhstan to systematically slaughter the saiga antelope, wild sheep, mural and wild boar, as well as to over-fish the sturgeon population in the Caspian Sea. Pelt hunters still hunt snow leopard and bear, while poachers plunder falcon and eagle nests and sell eggs and fledglings to rich sheikhs and other falcon hunt lovers. Only in 2001 was the saiga, under threat of extinction, put under total protection - thankfully its numbers are now on the rise. Some kulan survive in the protected zone of the Barsakelmes Nature Reserve on the Aral Sea and in Altyn Emel National Park, and thanks to strict protection the animals are multiplying once more.

The saiga, whose numbers fell from over a million in the 1970s to about 40,000 by 2002, is staging a comeback, thanks largely to a combined government–NGO program to conserve steppe habitats in the centre of the country. In Altyn-Emel National Park, Przewalski’s horses, extinct in Kazakhstan since 1940, have been reintroduced from zoos in Europe.

The golden eagle on Kazakhstan’s flag is a good omen for ornithologists. Hundreds of bird species are to be seen, from the paradise flycatcher of Aksu-Zhabagyly to the Himalayan snowcock and the relict gulls of Lake Alakol. Thousands of flamingos spend summer at Korgalzhyn Nature Reserve, 150km southwest of Astana. 

Back in 1867, Brehm, who was an avid ornithologist, was impressed by the rich bird life in the steppe. Even though this can only be observed today in a handful of remote steppe regions, it still makes for a very worthwhile trip. Tours in these areas support the efforts of national and international nature conservation organizations to open people's eyes to the beauty of these animals and to sharpen their awareness of the need for preservation of all Kazakhstan's wildlife.