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Kazakhstan’s steppe birds face new declines

Landscape ecologists from Münster analyse consequences of agricultural changes in the steppes of Kazakhstan / Indigenous bird populations of Kazakhstan’s unique feather-grass steppe are facing new declines

After a period of recovery over the past 20 years, indigenous bird populations of Kazakhstan’s unique feather-grass steppe are now facing new declines. This is the conclusion arrived at by a team of scientists led by Prof. Norbert Hölzel and Johannes Kamp from the Institute of Landscape Ecology at Münster University. For the first time, the scientists have estimated the population densities of various steppe birds in relation to land use and vegetation in northern Kazakhstan. Drawing on these data they have made forecasts for developments in the future.

Between 1954 and 1960, during the Khrushchev era, around 25 million hectares of steppe land in northern Kazakhstan were transformed into wheat fields. Since the breakup of the Soviet Union this process – which was accompanied by soil erosion and a massive loss of biodiversity – has been partially reversed. After the collapse of large state-subsidized farms in the early 1990s over 10 million hectares of arable land were abandoned. This development was accompanied by a drastic reduction in livestock numbers.

“The extensive areas of abandoned land are not only a fascinating landscape,” says Johannes Kamp. “They are also of outstanding importance for numerous rare and endangered species of the steppes – including demoiselle cranes, pallid harriers and black larks.” However, as a result of the worldwide rise in demand for agricultural land to produce cereals and energy plants, there has for some years now been a renewed increase in the use of abandoned land, which is putting pressure on many rare and endangered species. “If the current development continues many bird populations will decline. For the sociable lapwing, for example, we forecast a drop in the population of almost 30% over the next ten years, and a 10% decrease for the black lark. So, in our view, when it comes to measures for wildlife conservation farmers should think about intensifying the use of the land currently used for agricultural purposes, instead of reactivating abandoned land. This would be a way of counteracting the predicted decline in bird populations.”

Johannes Kamp, who is doing a PhD at the Institute of Landscape Ecology, has been examining the consequences of land use change in Kazakhstan for two years now, having been commissioned to do so by Europe’s largest nature conservation organization, Britain’s Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, and the Kazakh partner organization, the Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity in Kazakhstan. The work is being funded by the UK Government’s Darwin Initiative. The joint project aims to create large protected areas to help preserve the last steppe ecosystems of western Eurasia, along with their characteristic animal species.

Research and environmental measures are to be strengthened locally both by involving Kazakh students in the research work in the field and by working closely with Kazakh NGOs. Results of the research have now been published online in the journal “Biological Conservation”.


Kamp J. et al. (2011): Post-Soviet agricultural change predicts future declines after recent recovery in Eurasian steppe bird populations. Biological Conservation (online first); doi:10.1016/j.biocon.2011.07.010

Dr. Christina Heimken | Uni Münster
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