Planning the restoration of the Kazakh Steppe: Learning from the past, restoring for the future

Posted: 18th April 2024

Photo: Adam Devenish, RSPB

In the expansive steppe grasslands of west Kazakhstan, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity of Kazakhstan (ACBK) are delivering a restoration planning project for a 5-million-hectare landscape. Funded by the Endangered Landscapes & Seascapes Programme, this project is part of the wider Altyn Dala Conservation Initiative. In this blog, Genevieve Stephens, Kazakh Steppe (Altyn Dala) Project Officer, explores how it has been shaped by three historical epochs: the early period of nomadism, subsequent Russian Imperialism and Sovietism, and post-Soviet independence. Informed by an understanding of the ecological and cultural repercussions of historical changes within the project landscape, the team will be developing targeted plans to restore functional ecosystems and support thriving and resilient livelihoods.

Early historical context

The oldest known written observation of the Eurasian steppes was produced by the Greek historian and geographer Herodotus in the 5th century BCE. He described luxuriant grasses, the extremes of climate, and level plains stretching across the horizon. Centuries later, travel accounts of the region are almost identical. British journalist Christopher Robbins, in his 2008 travel book ‘In Search of Kazakhstan,’ describes the steppe’s ‘featureless enormity’ and being ‘surrounded forever by a sea of grass’. However, despite illusions of untouched wilderness, the steppe’s ecology has been shaped by a rich and complex sequence of events.

Until the early 19th century, the Eurasian grasslands were inhabited by nomadic Turkic peoples. These included the Botai, credited for the first domestication of wild horses between 3700 and 3100 BCE. Centuries later, nomadic Indo-Iranian communities, collectively known as the Saka, migrated into Kazakhstan from the west and east, dominating the grasslands from 900 to 200 BCE.

These represent just a fraction of the itinerant groups that migrated with the seasons in search of pastures and game animals. Today, a reverence of this nomadic culture is reflected in contemporary Kazakh music, performance arts, textiles, and cuisine.

Archaeological findings displayed in the ‘Gold of the Great Steppe’ exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. Photo: Fitzwilliam Museum.

Russian imperialism and the end of nomadism

The practice of nomadic pastoralism came to a near-total demise during the 19th-century colonisation of Kazakhstan by Russia, marking a profound and irreversible shift in the culture and ecology of the landscape. The transition to sedentism was accelerated during the Soviet policy of collectivisation between 1928-40, which saw the consolidation of land into parcels and the enforcement of state-sanctioned agriculture. Famine ensued, tragically killing an estimated million indigenous Kazakhs between 1932-34 as food was confiscated from peasant farmers to feed a growing industrial urban workforce. Inevitably, wildlife was hunted without control during this period. This was followed by President Krushchev’s 1950s ‘Virgin Lands’ campaign, in which vast stretches of the northern Kazakh Steppe were settled and cultivated by Russian, Belorussian and Ukrainian peasants.

Post-Soviet independence

This led to an increase in fire frequency and severity, which in turn affected species composition and habitat connectivity.

Yet, with time, Kazakhstan has emerged as a prosperous independent state. The past three decades have seen revivals in sectors including agriculture, technology, and infrastructure, environmental protection, as well as social reforms aimed at improving human wellbeing. This period has also seen significant demographic shifts, as individuals who sought refuge from the challenges of Soviet rule returned to their ancestral towns and villages. While large tracts of cultivated steppe were abandoned, enabling natural regeneration, pastoral agriculture remained sedentary. This has resulted in large-scale grassland degradation, especially in areas surrounding rural villages, undermining both ecological integrity and livelihood security. Continued state control over land tenure governance and spatial planning also limit opportunities for participatory approaches to decision-making.

Bare ground in the vicinity of a sheep station in the village Ashiozek, within the project landscape. Photo: Michele Bowe, RSPB.

The project: Learning from the past, restoring for the future

The restoration planning project is situated in a vast landscape of 5 million hectares in western Kazakhstan and encompasses protected and hunting areas, villages, pastoral grazing lands, and wetlands. It also includes the migration route of the world’s largest Saiga antelope population, and is home to other steppe species, such as ground squirrels, vipers, and eagles.

Map of the West Kazakh Steppe project area.

Our initial aim is to understand the socio-ecological changes following the nation’s independence. Through a review of historic satellite imagery, species records, agricultural and hydrological developments, and relevant legislative and policy changes, we are working to pinpoint drivers of change and the impact they’ve had on the landscape’s ecological integrity.

Using satellite imagery from 1989 to 2020, we have identified and classified eight distinct land cover types. We are now cross-comparing these two maps (from 1989 and 2020) to identify where land-cover changes have occurred. In addition, we are collecting wide-ranging data on human influences, such as the developments of roads, canals, and settlements, as well as natural features, such as soil types, hydrogeology, elevation, and above-ground biomass. We will then explore to what extent these variables can be used to explain the changes observed during this period, with the ultimate goal of better modelling and predicting land-use changes in the future.

Since the start of the planning project in September 2023, our assessments have been limited to these image analyses and desk-based reviews. Kazakhstan’s winters are severe, with temperatures plummeting to below -30 degrees Celsius, rendering fieldwork impractical. However, as Spring approaches, we are preparing for the upcoming field season, when project staff will validate our remote sensing assessments and conduct additional ecological surveys.

Winter steppe in west Kazakhstan. Photo: Michaela Butorova, RSPB.

We are also seeking to build relationships with local community members and better understand the landscape’s cultural, economic, and social contexts. We hope that this will enable greater participation by local stakeholders in the development of restoration plans, as well as greater certainty that the plans reflect local aspirations and livelihood needs.

A significant challenge is that most accounts of the region have been written by outsiders, like Herodotus and Christopher Robbins, exhibiting inherent biases and oversimplifications.

The Endangered Landscapes & Seascapes Programme planning project will prioritise and record the voices of local Kazakhs and develop a nuanced understanding of the complex and diverse cultural and social significance of the landscape. This Spring, we will conduct a series of interviews with a broad range of local participants, including pastoralists, elders, teachers, and artisans, to learn more about local attitudes, memories, values, and aspirations. A particular emphasis will be placed on exploring the communities’ awareness of the impacts of climate change and their adaptive strategies – local knowledge which will subsequently be incorporated into the restoration planning process.

ACBK staff member Aida conducting a participatory mapping exercise with a local farmer in west Kazakhstan. Photo: Sorrel Jones (RSPB).

The data collected from image analysis, desk-based reviews, fieldwork, and interviews will be consolidated to pinpoint conservation hotspots. The information will also be presented to a coalition of local and national organisations with social and ecological expertise. Together, we will identify synergies and trade-offs among the landscape’s social, ecological, and economic requirements – further shaping a path towards holistic ecosystem restoration.

This blog was written by Genevieve Stephens, Kazakh Steppe (Altyn Dala) Project Officer. To find out more, visit the West Kazakh Steppe project page

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