A trial by fire

A trial by fire

For many years, the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) in Russia has maintained a close and friendly working relationship with the staff of the Stepnoi Sanctuary. Photograph of the staff of the Stepnoi Sanctuary (right) and the Chernye Zemli Reserve (left) quenching a small fire. Photo by IFAW.

Update by Mariya Vorontsova, Office of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) in Russia, published in Saiga News Issue 20, on page 10

We have repeatedly visited this amazing corner of the Astrakhan region, communicated with the employees of the Sanctuary and watched their work. We always marvelled at the idyllic views (the boundless steppe, quietly grazing saigas, flocks of birds) that opened out in front of us. All this is possible through the efforts of a small group who protect the Stepnoi Sanctuary, within which saigas find rest and care at different times of their lives. For instance, watering places for saigas and other steppe inhabitants are always maintained in proper working order. Based on their excellent knowledge of saiga ecology and behavior, the Stepnoi staff have zoned the reserve into two areas; a reserved zone where calving has taken place over the last five years; and а zone of sustainable nature management where other activities can take place.

After the calving season, spring days give way to unbearable, scorching heat. An emerald spring herbal carpet turns into a yellow, visibly rigid surface. A very alarming picture. Particularly because this is the time of fires, both natural (e.g., caused by a dry thunderstorm), and human-caused. Vast areas of steppe can burn, together with all their inhabitants. In order to minimize the damage caused by fire, reserve staff have started clearing the vegetation on tracks within the reserve and ploughing particularly hazardous areas to reduce the vegetation load. These activities are possible due to the assistance the reserve has received from the Nature Management Service of the Astrakhan region and support from farmers, with whom the reserve staff have established good relationships based on a mutual love of nature and of their native land, mutual aid and a common understanding.

At the start of the fire hazard period in 2015, IFAW allocated funds for the purchase of special equipment (water barrels, mowing machines etc.). This came just at the right time, because on 15th June, a routine ranger patrol notified the directorate of an oncoming catastrophic fire originating in the Chernye Zemli Reserve, which borders the Stepnoi Sanctuary. Without a moment's hesitation, the Sanctuary's director Vladimir Kalmykov raised the alarm with all the reserve's off-duty personnel, who rushed to the steppe at top speed, to the aid of their neighbours and colleagues from the Chernye Zemli Reserve. Volunteers from among the farmers living in the Sanctuary's Sustainable Nature Management zone also joined in. Less than in an hour after the alarm was raised, the team got down to fire fighting.

Because of a strong wind, a wall of fire up to 3 metres high and almost 20 km long devoured all in its way. With great difficulty the team managed to save a vehicle belonging to the Chernye Zemli Reserve which all of a sudden found itself in a ring of fire. The fire fighting lasted far into the night. According to the Director of the Chernye Zemli reserve, Bataar Ubushayev, the fire destroyed an area of about 6,000 ha in his reserve. The Stepnoi staff left the fire zone having sustained the loss of a tractor and plough, yet having prevented the spread of the fire to the Sanctuary. Many plants were destroyed in the fire. And no one could say what had happened to the wildlife since heavy smoke and the darkness of the night made it difficult to discern anything in the burnt out area. In that period all the steppe inhabitants had just produced offspring - cranes, hares, foxes and others; most likely, many of them failed to pull through the fire.

It was not the first or the last fire in the Chernye Zemli Reserve that year. As can be seen in the satellite image, fires happened there regularly in 2015 from the second half of June onwards, and the total burnt-out area covered about 100,000 hectares. Yet, due to the efforts of the Stepnoi Sanctuary's staff, their reserve barely suffered from fire.