Mongolia|opinion & analysis|September 29, 2015 / 09:25 AM
Aral Sea crisis has tremendous impact on ecosystems of region − Central Asian Mammals Initiative

AKIPRESS.COM - The Aral Sea crisis had an enormous impact on every component of the region’s ecosystem, including drinking water, soil and air, while there are enough data to show the consequences that the disappearance of Aral Sea had on human health, according to an exclusive interview given to the CA-News by Natalya Yakusheva, the coordinator for the Central Asian Mammal Initiative of the UN Convention on Migratory Species, otherwise known as the Bonn Convention.

What could you tell us about the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS)? Which programs on protection of migratory animals are being implemented in Central Asia?

The Convention on Migratory Species (CMS), otherwise known as the Bonn Convention, is one of the oldest international agreements created to conserve biodiversity. As of October 1, 2015, the Convention will have been signed by 122 parties. The purpose of the Convention is stated in its name: to ensure that the migratory animals can move freely and safely, including across the borders between various states.

Central Asia is one of the priority regions for the Convention, since mass migrations over long distances are still typical occur in Central Asian countries. In 2014, the Convention’s parties approved the Central Asian Mammal Initiative, which reconfirmed the CMS mandate to work in the region. The Initiative has united 14 countries with the purpose of eliminating threats to 15 species of migratory animals. The most serious threats include poaching, development of transportation infrastructures that hinder the movement of animals and animal diseases.

The Convention already has significant experience working in the region, for example through the Agreement on Conservation of African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbirds (AEWA) as well as memorandums of understanding on conservation, restoration and sustainable use of saiga antelope, Bukhara deer and birds of prey (raptors).

Which Central Asian countries have already approved the Convention? What are the conditions for joining the Convention?

I would like to point out that the CMS Secretariat considers it essential to view Central Asia as a single eco-region in a wider sense of the term, and that partly includes the Russian Federation, China, the Islamic Republic of Iran, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bhutan and Mongolia, as well as Afghanistan, which signed the Convention in the summer of 2015. Unfortunately, several countries on that list, among them the Russian Federation, China, Nepal and Bhutan have not yet joined the Convention.

If we are talking about Central Asia in the traditional sense of the term, then all the countries of the region, with the exception of Turkmenistan, are parties to the Convention, namely: Kazakhstan Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

In order to join the CMS, a country needs to bring its legislation into line with the rules of the Convention, as well as formally confirming its signature, which usually is done by passing a national law approved by the parliament.

Which regional organizations in Central Asia do you cooperate with?

We cooperate with various organizations, that work on regional, national and local levels and carry out different projects in the field of nature conservation. Among others, we work with other local branches of the UN, nature conservancy NGOs, organizations that promote international cooperation on development, scientists and experts, both local and international. We view such regional network as essential, enabling us to promote policies reflecting the real demands of the region. Moreover, practically all project work connected with fulfilling the CMS mandate is done through the partner organizations.

Which measure have you undertaken to remove the obstacles along the migration routes of animals in Central Asia, particularly in Mongolia?

The CMS Secretariat has developed several documents outlining technical measures necessary to resolve specific “barrier” problems, as well as general principles for finding solutions to these problems on the regional level.

Among specific measures is the report “Saiga Crossing Options: Guidelines and Recommendations to Mitigate Barrier Effects of Border Fencing and Railroad Corridors on Saiga Antelope in Kazakhstan”. It presents scientific data on significant negative impact of border fencing between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in the Ustyurt Plateau region on saiga populations and outlines measures necessary to adapt infrastructure to the needs of wild animals.

Among the regional documents is a directive, newly approved by the CMS parties, on the mitigation of negative effects of transport infrastructures on mammals in Central Asia. It includes a complex analysis of the situation in the region, as well as several measures included in the ecological assessment and adaptation of infrastructures to the needs of various types of wild animals. Based on this directive, the government of Mongolia has approved a national directive on infrastructures adapted to the needs of wild animals in the steppe region and in Goby Desert.

As a UN agency, we assume the role of the neutral mediator, whose function is to gather at the negotiation table representatives of various interested parties to discuss the optimal solutions to existing problems. Fully realizing how important it is to include in these discussions the representatives of the private sector as well as donors – for example, banks issuing loans – we strive to secure them too.

In your opinion, how has the Aral Sea crisis affected the migration of wild animals in the region?

The Aral Sea crisis had a tremendous effect on all components of the region’s ecosystem, including drinking water, soil and air. We have enough data on the consequences of this event on human health. Unfortunately, as of today, we do not have enough data that would allow us to fully estimate the consequences for the animals. We can only guess the negative effects – for example, for migratory bird populations, which used the Aral Sea as “fueling station”, or feeding ground during long migrations from south to north, or the impact on the saiga population, which migrates to the east and north of Aral. There is a definite need for a full scientific evaluation of this issue.

Do you monitor saiga migrations in Kazakhstan? In your opinion, what was the reason for the mass die outs of saiga? Is it possible to prevent such events?

Yes, we closely monitor the situation concerning saiga. In 2005, there was established under the CMS umbrella a memorandum of understanding on conservation, regeneration and sustainable use of saiga antelope, signed by all five countries in the saiga range: Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Russia, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. This complex UN instrument covers the whole spectrum of issues around the conservation of saiga – from gathering information on the latest scientific findings (such as research into migration routes) current threats and, of course, all projects aimed at conserving the saiga population. At the end of October 2015, there will be a Third Meeting of Signatories of the Memorandum of Understanding on Saiga, which will address all the above-mentioned issues. The meeting will also discuss and present for signature an international Medium-term Plan of Action for 2016-2020 for all countries within the saiga range. We are hoping that consumer countries will also be present. Saiga horns are popular in Eastern medicine, and it is crucial to include in this dialogue those countries where such remedies are in demand.

We are very concerned with the mass die-outs of saiga that happened in May 2015. The latest official data submitted by Kazakhstan indicate that over 150,000 animals have died in Central Kazakhstan. This is a major blow to the species as a whole, since the Betpak-Dala population in Central Kazakhstan was the most numerous before the die-outs. During the epizootic the CMS Secretariat at the request of the Government of Kazakhstan sent an emergency expert commission to the location in order to assist in the investigation of this tragedy. The Government of Kazakhstan, the UN and the experts – both local and international – are carrying out this investigation in close cooperation. We hope to have preliminary results in the near future and present them at the upcoming meeting in Tashkent.

How do the climate change, hot summers and cold winters, affect the animal migrations?

Climate change has a serious negative impact on ecosystems as a whole and wild animals as one of the components as well. For example, during the extreme summer drought in Mongolia, Mongolian gazelles migrated as far north as the border with Russia. Upon reaching the border, many animals died while trying to cross the barbed wire of the border fences. Luckily, there is now a partial solution to this problem – during the dry season the fencing is removed temporarily at points where the Mongolian gazelles cross the border.

The other example is shrinking of wetlands that serve as refuges for migratory birds. But the most affected are probably the high mountain areas, since the melting of glacier ice affects all components of the ecosystem, including the microclimate, the composition of the vegetative system and the water supply.

Moreover, harsh cold winters and increase of snow cover can cause mass deaths of animals. The experts suggest that climate change will cause the rise in extreme weather occurrences in the future.

What has caused the invasion of the Mediterranean black widow in the region?

The Mediterranean black widow spider, as any other spider species, is not covered by CMS, since their range is not significantly large and cannot be defined as trans-boundary. We are aware that some spider species have been recently found in large quantities in some districts of the Central Asia, such as Kazakhstan, but the parties to the Convention are not required to include such data in their national reports, thus we do not possess enough data in this area.

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