By Jim Sanderson, Small Cat Conservation Alliance Founder
When I planned my trip to visit Elena Bykova and the Saiga Conservation Alliance in Uzbekistan, I had no way of knowing that the Cat Specialist Group would be asked to consider cheetah reintroduction for Uzbekistan, or that the area for the reintroduction would be the same plateau where saiga occur. Moreover, the crew members on my trip are the same people who would be responsible for housing the cheetahs and reintroducing them to the wild at their rehab/captive breeding center. Thus, Elena’s saiga conservation project takes on a whole new importance.
During our trip, participants deployed cameras in what seemed like an impossible desert landscape. However, much to my surprise over jut a few days the team got video camera trap pictures of corsac fox, and photographs of a caracal. We observed goitered gazelle, the main prey of cheetah, and saw tracks of wild sheep.
The saiga conservation project can now be seen as an international cross-border project with Kazakhstan that may well involve a cheetah reintroduction project. The border fence that separates Kazakhstan from Uzbekistan is an issue since this small place where saiga and gazelle cross between countries is where most poaching takes place, and where cameras are most needed and most likely to be stolen.
There are a few villages nearby so it is possible to deal with poaching by other means such as working with communities. With a possible cheetah reintroduction program, working with communities will become vital. The possible removal of the border fence will also likely become an issue that is discussed openly.
The rehab/captive breeding center might also be considered as a place where saiga breeding can take place and where visitors can observe free-ranging saiga. A partnership strengthened the connection between the rehab center and the saiga conservation project, and more cooperation will lead to more effective conservation.
Plans are being made for me to return next year to give a camera trap workshop. In the meantime, it is good to realize that the conservation community, as small as it is, is closer together and I think stronger than before. There are many ways projects can fail, and Elena and I heard many such reasons. However, our task is to create ways that we can succeed. Thus we must attack problems from a different vantage point, a we-can-make-something-work perspective.