Saiga Hero: Vladimir Kalmykov

Saiga Hero: Vladimir Kalmykov

Vladimir Kalmykov: The best part of my work is the tranquility of the Stepnoi sanctuary

Today we recognise Vladimir Kalmykov, Director of the Stepnoi sanctuary, and ask him some questions about his life with saigas. He is the head of one of the best saiga conservation teams, was the first state inspector in the sanctuary and participated in its creation. For his contribution to this work, which has completely absorbed all his life, Vladimir Kalmykov has been given awards by the Astrakhan regional government more than once. His team also won an award for Excellence in Anti-poaching from the Saiga Conservation Alliance.

Editor: When did you first become interested in saigas?

VK:Roughly 50 years ago, when I was a child, saigas were found rather widely in the Astrakhan region, and specifically near Promyslovka village, where I was lucky enough to come into the world. At that time all of us village boys were really interested to watch these quite unusual and swift-footed animals who seemed to be flying over the steppe plains of our native land.

Editor: When did you start to study and work on saiga conservation?

In 1988, for a variety of reasons, I decided to drastically change my life, which had previously been working in agriculture; I happened to get a job as a ranger with the Hunting and Fishing Society in Liman, where my duties included protecting hunting areas from poachers and enforcing hunting rules. After working as a senior ranger there, I became a game management specialist in the Okhotnadzor Service (which supervises hunting activities) of the Liman and Kamyshov game management areas of Astrakhan region, where I gave particular attention to monitoring and managing game species including the saiga, controlling predators, checking that local people were abiding by the hunting regulations, supervising rangers and investigating poaching. It was that "primary school", and the knowledge and experience I obtained there, which helped me not only to work in saiga conservation myself but also to share my experience and skills with my colleagues.

In 1994, having realized that I did not have sufficient background knowledge, I enrolled in the distance learning programme of Volgograd Agricultural Academy, graduating in 2000. An important event for both the saiga and me happened in the same year: Stepnoi State Natural Sanctuary was gazetted in the Astrakhan region. I began to work there as a state inspector-motorcyclist from the very first days after its creation. And then I began to seriously observe and protect the saiga. Sixteen years have passed since that time and now I am the Director of this absolutely unique organization, the main task of which is saiga conservation, along with the conservation  of  all  the saiga's amazing neighbours.

Editor: What is your  usual working day like?

VK:All my work should be planned for months ahead, yet every day is different. If I do not have to stay in my office and do paperwork, I go to the sanctuary where I drive round the territory with the inspectors, carrying out various activities and talking to the farmers who live within the sanctuary and along its borders.

Editor: Can you tell us an interesting story about saigas?

VK:The saiga is a very interesting animal. You can watch it endlessly  and every time you can find something quite new and unusual in its behavior. One can study, study and study it… There is one question that neither my colleagues or I can answer; why do saigas abandon places where they are protected and move to the areas where they can be killed? Is it possible that the animals hope that people are humane? We cannot understand them. The birth of saiga calves is the most joyous and  touching, but also very disturbing, period in the life of a saiga. A lot of stories can be told about the relationship between a female and her calves, but it is better if you see it with your own eyes.

Editor: What are the main problems in your work?

VK:I think that in answering this question I will not be original; problems such as weak legislation, the low wages of inspectors, the constant need for petrol and new equipment are inherent to all saiga conservation organizations throughout its range.

Editor: How can the obstacles in your work be removed?

The answer to this question follows immediately from the answer to the previous question: wages should be increasedthe logistical support for the sanctuary should be improved; and no less importantly, the relationships between government structures need adjustment; they should all protect the saiga, including law enforcement bodies. But this requires political will at both federal and regional levels. In addition, the Stepnoi sanctuary's inspectors should have the authority which enables them to protect the saiga and, especially, to detain poachers not only within the sanctuary but also beyond its borders. This is important because the saiga, as a migratory species, often leaves the sanctuary.

Editor: What is the best part of your work?

The tranquility within the sanctuary, where one can easily come across grazing saiga herds, hares and foxes running from one bush to another, rodents watching over their foodstores near their burrows, a lot of birds… But such an idyll can be only reached as a result of the well-coordinated work of the sanctuary team. Our people are another highlight of my work. I must say that once, some 20 years ago, there was a special saiga conservation squad in the Kalmykian republic, consisting of the highest-level professionals and supported by the Federal Ministry of Agriculture. With the advent of Perestroika and the ensuing major economic depression this squad lost support and nobody wanted them anymore. Naturally, having realized that there was no saiga protection, poachers started their "black deeds". And what about those people? We must confess with regret that many former saiga conservation officers are not among us; some went into business, others were left without a job with all the ensuing consequences. But the Stepnoi sanctuary was lucky: two of these men who were most professionally dedicated to the cause of saiga conservation have joined our ranks; Gennady Domovtsov and Nikolai Yudenko, who for a long time were not in demand where they could do most good. For two years already these first-class professionals have been passing their rich experience on to the younger staff, which has helped to substantially raise the level of protection in the sanctuary.

Editor: What are the prospects for saiga conservation? What should be done first and foremost to help this species survive?

It is of the utmost importance that every person who has been trusted to protect nature as a whole, and the saiga specifically, should mind their own affairs and never use the saiga as an object of political bargaining, for commercial gain, or to solve questions that are relevant to other  parts of government. It's extremely important to consolide and align the activities of all those who have been entrusted to conserve this truly unique and unfortunate species, which throughout its history has endured periods of  ups and downs in its numbers and reductions and expansions of its natural habitats.  Only on this understanding can we help this species survive.

Editor: You have worked for more than a decade on the conservation of threatened species. What has changed over the years and what are current trends in this field?

In spite of the fact that much is being done in our country to conserve and restore threatened species (mostly for big cats), I am not very optimistic and cannot say that today's trends are positive, particularly in respect of the saiga.. As is evident from the statements of the Ministry of Nature Protection, in the near future the saiga will be included in the Red Book of the Russian Federation, yet I am not sure that even this will help the saiga survive…