“Do you see them?” the radio crackled in the old Russian 4×4.
The driver tried to steer away from pits and ravines that he could barely see in the dark. The lights of another car flashed in the distance. After a prolonged silence came the answer. “No.”
The two drivers navigating around a national park in the dead of the night are Kazakh rangers trying to capture Asiatic wild ass, known locally as kulans.
It is a part of the operation to reintroduce these animals to the steppes of central Kazakhstan, where they disappeared a century ago.
Kulans are the zebras of Asia. They used to roam on a massive territory stretching from Syria to Mongolia but today their populations are fragmented and vulnerable. Kulans in Central Asia are in particular danger.
Although they are a protected species, they are hunted for their meat and their skins in some areas.
Due to hunting and habitat conversion, they now inhabit only 3% of the territory where they formerly ranged.
Their population in Kazakhstan is now estimated at about 4,000 and almost all of them are in the Altyn Emel national park in the country’s south-east.