Steppe, steppe everywhere…
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. I arrived here by 4-wheel drive vehicle with my 24-year old son, Peter, to find and photograph the saiga antelope, the only antelope in Europe, for Wild Wonders of Europe.
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 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.
Please note that blogs reflect our photographers' opinions and not necessarily those of the directors of Wild Wonders of Europe.