At last, the moment we have spent a month cruising the steppe for…
Most of the female saigas in the Kalmykian herd gave birth to their young in the safety of the Cherniye Zemly Nature Reserve and are now tied to the area for a few days until the young can move with the herd. It is a miracle – in the course of one week, the saiga population has doubled! Each female had one or two calves. Over an area of several dozen square kilometres, the saigas created an enormous kindergarten, with at least 10,000 adults and their young – making up most of the European population.
Twenty thousand saiga eyes watch the steppe warily, but wolves, foxes, eagles, and vultures take their share of the bounty. In the daytime, together with the reserve staff, we helped count the saiga calves, which hide in the steppe as they can’t flee in their first few days of life. We pick them up, record their measurements and weigh them, and put them back. These conditions will last only a few days, but this is my chance to get close enough to photograph the shy animals.
In the middle of the night, we drove without headlights into the midst of the saiga herd, carrying our tent, food, and equipment. Petya and Khongar helped set up the tent near the ruins of an old shepherd’s dwelling and then departed for the ranger station. I stayed behind under the bright stars of the southern skies. The car would return to get me in 24 hours. Well before dawn I heard the baaing of thousands of saiga calves and their mothers, looking for each other for a morning feeding. The steppe came alive.
Through an opening in the hide, I saw hundreds of dim silhouettes of the antelopes passing by. Some of them were followed by their calves. The place I had picked for my hide couldn’t have been better – the saiga trails passed right by my tent. Finally, I could shoot in the early morning light. I wrapped my Nikon D3 in a sweater to muffle the sound of the shutter, but it still seemed deafening. The animals didn’t seem to mind, however, except the ones that passed within five steps of the tent.
Many of the saigas lingered near the ruins. The walls of the shelter were built several decades ago of salty clay, and now the animals ate the clay, filling out their diet with needed minerals.
Of the thousand saigas which passed the tent in the course of the 24 hours I was there, I only saw fewer than two dozen males. The deficit of males, which poachers shoot for their horns, is the biggest threat to the population. In the winter, during the mating season, the outnumbered males aren’t able to mate with all the females in a short time period, and therefore the birthing season is drawn out over longer periods and many females remain barren.
During the day a strong wind picked up the dry sand, covering my lenses. I put them away, closing all the openings in the tent, but the dust still managed to penetrate into the tent, getting in my eyes, nose, and ears, and I felt grit on my teeth. Dust is one of the reasons that the saiga need the trunk-like nose as a filter. Even in the absence of wind, running at 70 kilometres an hour, a herd of saigas kicks up clouds of dust in the dry steppe, visible from afar. Furthermore, the saiga’s nose helps their calls resonate loudly across the vast steppe.
The wind suddenly died down a couple of hours before sundown, and I got another chance to continue my observations and photography. Then it grew dark. The stars emerged over the steppe. The smell of sagebrush filled the air.
I packed up the tent and my equipment. In the darkness I heard the sound of the car approaching to fetch me. Mission accomplished. Then it finally dawned on me that for a whole month I hadn’t had a decent bath, eaten a decent meal, or seen my family (except Petya). Farewell steppe! Farewell saigas! Tomorrow I’m going home…
Please note that blogs reflect our photographers' opinions and not necessarily those of the directors of Wild Wonders of Europe.