A groundbreaking landscape restoration initiative in which Fauna & Flora is a core partner, widely acknowledged to have been instrumental in engineering the spectacular comeback of the critically endangered saiga antelope, has been recognised as a UN World Restoration Flagship. The award – presented at COP15 in Montreal – is the first of its kind and is reserved for the ten best examples of large-scale ecosystem restoration around the globe.
Established in response to the dramatic decline of the saiga in Kazakhstan, the Altyn Dala Conservation Initiative comprises local and international partners working together to restore the degraded habitat of this intriguing antelope and other globally important wildlife across 750,000 square kilometres of steppe, desert and wetlands.
Overlooking saiga territory in Kazakhstan. Credit: Steffen Zuther/ACBK
The role of our in-country partner, Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity of Kazakhstan (ACBK), working alongside the government of Kazakhstan, Fauna & Flora, Frankfurt Zoological Society and RSPB, has been pivotal to the success of this visionary project, which encompasses an area so vast that it is visible from space.
The prestigious award is a cause for celebration in its own right. More importantly, it showcases collaborative conservation at its best and shines the spotlight on an initiative that is setting the gold standard in terms of its scale and level of ambition.
ACBK field team and government rangers pictured during the 2019 aerial survey. Credit: Albert Salemgareyev/ACBK
Around one million species worldwide are at risk of extinction, and one of the biggest threats to their survival is habitat loss and degradation. With wildlife running out of room to roam, the world needs to do much more to protect and restore nature. At a time when the world is crying out for a scaled-up, joined-up response to wholesale biodiversity loss, the Altyn Dala Conservation Initiative points the way forward.
Vera Voronova, Executive Director of ACBK, expressed her delight at the award: “At ACBK, the only national conservation organisation in Kazakhstan, we recognise the immense support we receive from international partners and our close collaboration with the government of Kazakhstan, and it is so inspiring to see our initiative share a stage with the world’s most ambitious conservation projects.”
Saiga herd on the move, Kazakhstan. Credit: Albert Salemgareyev/ACBK
This locally-led success story has seen saiga numbers bounce back from fewer than 40,000 individuals in 2005 to a heart-warming 1.3 million antelope carpeting the steppes of Kazakhstan today. That journey has not been without its setbacks. A mass die-off of saiga in 2015 caused by a bacterial infection wiped out 200,000 animals virtually overnight, but the past few years have witnessed a remarkable recovery. Encouraging annual survey results for 2019, followed by a mass calving event in 2020, began to indicate a steppe change in the saiga’s survival prospects. An aerial census in 2021 confirmed that populations were recovering with remarkable speed.
The much-vaunted 30×30 concept is dominating current conversations around the need to protect and restore nature, and that catchphrase undoubtedly provides a handy hook, but it is the involvement of Indigenous Peoples and local communities in landscape protection and restoration that holds the key to success.
The long-term future of the saiga, and all the rest of the world’s critically endangered species, is in local hands. As COP15 draws to a close, it is our fervent hope at Fauna & Flora that the rights and livelihoods of local people and communities – the ones ultimately responsible for protecting nature in their own backyards – will be enshrined in the so-called Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework.