Saiga Hero - Yuri Arylov

'Mere enthusiasm is not enough to feed a saiga!' - Y. Arylov

Yuri Nimeyevich Arylov is the Director of the Centre for Wild Animals in the Republic of Kalmykia, a Doctor of Biology, a Professor at the Kalmyk State University and an honoured worker of science of the Republic of Kalmykia. 

It is obvious that saigas have been Professor Arylov's passion for many years. His range of interests in science are wide, having been actively engaged for the last 24 years in studying ungulate ecology, in particular saigas, game ranching, environment protection, and ecological education for different sectors of the population.

The editor of Saiga News interviews Yuri Arylov for Saiga News Issue 20, page 30

In Saiga News 19, readers were informed about the sad fate of the Centre for Wild Animals in the Republic of Kalmykia. In Autumn 2014, the Government of the Republic of Kalmykia resolved to liquidate the Centre, which had functioned for 15 years. However, Professor Yuri Arylov who had been the Centre's Director for all those years continued to run it voluntarily. He hoped that all the necessary documents for transferring the centre to the Chernye Zemli Reserve would be obtained.

Editor: When did you first take an interest in saigas?

I was born in the city of Surgut, Khanty Mansiysk Autonomous Area, Siberia, where most Kalmyk people, including my parents, had been exiled in 1943 and where, as we all know, saigas could have lived with mammoths and woolly rhinoceroses. After school I returned to Elista, the native city of my ancestors, and entered the Agrarian Faculty of Kalmyk State University. Although in the early years of my education I had decided to devote my life to domestic livestock, I spent a lot of time studying the wildlife of my native land.

One day I was attracted by a strange-looking animal with a snout resembling a shortened version of the mammoth's trunk. But then I was not able to examine the saiga closely, which was quite abundant on the steppes of Kalmykia at the time. The government even developed special programmes to reduce saiga numbers, which greatly damaged the steppe's vegetation. There were even special state agricultural organisations, whose activities consisted of hunting saigas. Kalmykia made considerable profits from selling saiga meat at that time.

Editor: When did you begin studying the saiga and working on its conservation?

In the late 1980s, when the Soviet Union was immersed in Perestroika, the country's agricultural sector began to reduce. In 1991 I was offered the position of Deputy Director of the Chernye Zemli Reserve. It was then that my dream, to learn as much as possible about the saiga and its ecology, came true, and the conservation of this beautiful animal became my whole life.

In 2001, when the saiga's situation became catastrophic in Russia, Kirsan Ilyumjinov, the head of the Republic of Kalmykia, suggested that I take up the position of Director of the Centre for Wild Animals, the purpose of which was to breed and keep saigas in semi-wild conditions. So we constructed pens for the saigas and accommodation buildings for the Yashkul' Breeding Centre's staff and visitors, and all the infrastructure needed for scientific research and to hold ecological education and awareness-raiding events for different groups of people, on an 800ha area 70 km east of Elista which had been allocated to the Centre. We have already written about our Centre in Saiga News.

Editor: What is your usual working day?

Actually, every day, including weekends, is very much alike for us. I usually begin my working day phoning the staff of the Yashkul' Breeding Centre to find out what is going on there. These calls determine my working schedule for the rest of the day. Administrative issues associated with the Centre's activities occupy a considerable portion of my time during the day.

Among my other daily activities are answering letters, preparing reports, developing plans for the following days and meeting officials from other organisations. I am also actively engaged in teaching at the University, where I deliver a course in ecology. I take great pleasure in working with the younger generation; I often visit rural schools and tell the children about the wildlife of their native land, about the saiga and about the need to conserve our environment.

Editor: Can you tell us an interesting story about a saiga?

In 2003, our saigas lived in a small nursery, Khar-Buluk (17 km from Elista), where we were experimenting with artificial feeding. The most sociable of the animals was a youngster named Pyatnashka (which can be roughly translated from Russian as 'spotty'). At 2.5 months old, Pyatnashka suffered a fracture of the radius in the right fore limb. We immediately applied a splint to the broken bone. A month and a half after the plaster had been removed Pyatnashka felt quite confident resting on his leg, but still remained slightly lame, which was why he received an addition to his name and was now called Pyatnashka-Khromonozhka (the second part translating as 'lame'). In 2005 this male was transferred to the general enclosure at the Yashkul' breeding centre, where he settled in very well, and for a long time he responded when I called his name.

Editor: What are the main problems in your work?

At the moment, for well-known reasons, it is hard for me to talk about this. However, my rich experience in this field allows me to confirm (and, I think all my colleagues would agree with me) that the main problem is the extremely scanty funding or, to be frank, no funding at all. Unfortunately, mere enthusiasm is not enough to feed a saiga; nor can it be used as a 'currency' to buy water. To summarise, if the financial support was sufficient, we could do a lot for the saiga and 'bring it back to life', as it once was.

Editor: Can you think of any ways to remove the obstacles to your work?

Speaking globally, ecology and environmental protection must become priorities in the government's social development strategies. Therefore, this area must receive a high level of financial support rather than be residually financed. Conserving all the components of natural ecosystems must become one of the principal objectives for officials of every rank and level, as well as for ordinary people.

Editor: Which is the best part of your work?

The best part of my work is the realisation that you are involved in a very important field. This doesn't just refer to our work with saigas directly, but also includes communication with experts coming to the Yashkul' Breeding Centre from all over our enormous country and from abroad. Children also occupy a significant niche in my professional activities; they absorb everything we tell and show them, so that they can take our places in future and conserve the saiga and wildlife in general, just like we do.

My most important achievement is developing techniques to breed saigas in semi-wild conditions, which were developed in collaboration with researchers from different scientific organisations in Russia. In 2015, the animals in Yashkul' Breeding Centre produced their 15th generation of babies, which means the micropopulation we have created here is quite stable and viable.

Editor: What are the prospects for saiga conservation? What are the primary and most important steps that would help the species survive?

The situation for the saiga is just terrible in the Russian Federation. Also, the pain that the recent tragedy in Kazakhstan has caused us is unspeakable. We are losing a unique species, which has survived numerous natural disasters, the country's economic crashes, diseases and so on. I think it is really important to develop an action plan as soon as possible, a real plan that would be financed properly both at the regional and at the federal levels. In this respect we should learn from the Republic of Kazakhstan, where a real plan of action with adequate financial support yielded good results; the saiga population became 10 times larger within 10 years (from 23-24 thousand individuals in 2004 to 260-280 thousand individuals in 2014).

Editor: You have been working for over two decades studying and conserving rare animals. What changes have you observed over these years, and what are current trends in this field?

Unfortunately, despite numerous efforts the saiga population has decreased in recent years, which may lead to the utter extinction of the species. I am not a pessimist, but I do not see any positive trends today.