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.
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.
We have been exploring the vast steppes near the Caspian Sea for three weeks now. Now we know that nearly all the saiga antelopes have concentrated in the Cherniye Zemly Nature Reserve and its buffer zone, which mean that they are ensured protection by the ranger service. However, this creates difficulties for me. I fear that by photographing the animals, I could disturb them, and then they would leave the safety of the preserve into shooting range of poachers.
Each day, we see from afar a herd of about 7-10,000 antelopes. This is a large part of the European population, and yet only a small percentage of what remains of herds that used to number in the hundreds of thousands. After consulting with the nature reserve staff, we decide to wait until the saiga begin to give birth, when the mothers will not be able to leave their young. So we have a week in reserve to photograph other phenomena of the spring steppe. We are surrounded by Demoiselle cranes, steppe eagles, and burial mounds. All these birds nest near ranger patrol roads and they aren’t afraid of cars.
The reserve rangers have to be on their guard now. Five ranger jeeps patrol the steppe day and night in the vicinity of the local villages of Utta, Kholkhuta, and Taun-Gashun.
The rangers sometimes hide among the sand dunes, and other times demonstratively stake out the tops of hills. The poachers know they are there and don’t venture toward the reserve. They have their fill with small herds of males that have separated from the main herd, away from the preserve.
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.
Please note that blogs reflect our photographers' opinions and not necessarily those of the directors of Wild Wonders of Europe.