The history of steppes is closely tied with the history of civilization. It is in the steppes humankind “was getting on its feet” developing agriculture, establishing great empires, and strengthening the states. Today steppes continue to feed the human population of the Earth, as most of settlements and agricultural lands are located in steppe regions. People formed the present appearance of steppes by irrigation, burning, and ploughing up. Unfortunately, these activities at some stages have led to catastrophic consequences, which showed that self-restoration functions of steppe ecosystems have their limits. The list of problems in 20th century includes but is not limited to desertification, erosion, salinization, decrease of soil fertility, and reduction of biodiversity. Despite some efforts of restoring grass ecosystems in several regions of the planet, negative impacts on steppes continue today and are very significant.
Dauria is not exclusion. The existing here today protected areas occupy less than 10% of the region. These protected areas are not connected to each other by ecological corridors and can provide protection of just some of the most important parts of steppe ecosystems. Due to fragmentary character and small size the protected areas cannot guarantee conservation of ecosystems integrity and ecological functionality while those are threatened by a set of unfavorable influencing factors. Below we will describe some of those.
It is known that steppe communities have been experiencing fires for millennia and have adapted to them. However, in the past steppes burned out only once in several years with fires caused by lightning strikes. Today due to people’s fault fires occur every year. In Dauria strong winds in springtime help spreading of fires, which makes firefighting efforts extremely difficult or even impossible. The incessant fire catastrophes result in losses of grasses diversity and vegetation cover, which causes soil erosion and reduction of habitats for many animals.
Experts estimate that because of spring agricultural burnings and careless handling of fire about 40% of steppes burn out every year and up to 70% of meadows and wetlands in some years in Russia and Mongolia. In more populated Chinese part of Dauria these figures are lower. The burnt areas are no longer suitable for nesting of cranes, bustards, geese, and other birds. Fires destroy nests with eggs and little chicks, as well as mammals and insects. The negative role of fires especially increases in dry periods, which itself greatly diminishes the areas of suitable habitats. The problem is enlarged by absence of coordination between countries in firefighting and fires often cross state borders and go far before people start doing anything. Under such conditions it is necessary to establish an efficient system of international cooperation in firefighting and preventive measures through population awareness.
Hunting, as well as cattle breeding, has always been traditional occupations of the local population. Interesting stories and traditions of hunting marmots (tarbagans), antelopes (dzerens), wolves and other animals are described in steppe peoples’ epos. There was also a strict “code” of hunters, which guaranteed conservation of the steppe wildlife. Today many traditions are lost. Poaching became one of the main threats to the most sensitive species (dzeren, bustard, swan-goose, and others). Killing by people was the main reason of disappearance of dzerens in China and Russia and put under threat of global extinction bustards and swan-geese. Illegal animal hunting is widely spread in Russia and in recent years is expanding fast in Mongolia. In China hunting is not so big and is mainly for large animals, but collection of eggs of wild birds is quite common. For solving these problems it is especially important to have good and efficient work of nature protection agencies as well as wide awareness actions with local population and organization of protected areas for key habitats of rare and endangered species.
Development of agriculture is the most prominent cause of changing steppes. In the north of Dauria the portion of agricultural lands in steppes reached 40%. In the last decade of the 20th century the area of ploughed lands in Russia and Mongolia has decreased. By expert estimates restoration of steppe in the areas of former agricultural lands is possible in 20-30 years in the absence of any adverse impacts. The numbers of cattle also decreased in both countries, which also helped restoration of grass ecosystems. But the problem of overgrazing is still essential in steppes. The traditional for steppe people nomadic lifestyle, which sustained restoration processes of steppe grazing fields, is retained now only in Mongolia and was very much modified. Settled grazing sites, excessive number of animals (primarily sheep and goats) have led to exhaustion and degradation of significant steppe areas. High level of vegetation cover degradation is noted within 15-20 km around towns and around 3-5 km of grazing sites. Negative influence of overgrazing is particularly noticeable in dry periods. Wild animals’ habitats become fragmented, biodiversity decreases, and the overall ecosystem stability diminishes. This problem could be solved to some extent by increasing the share of big cattle (cows and horses) as they do not affect steppe grasses as much as sheep, and also using strict well-founded norms of grazing.
Domestic and industrial pollution of soils and waters in recent years became one of the main problems of densely populated areas. Non-industrial common pollution is essential for Russian and Mongolian parts of Dauria. Big garbage dumps near towns are frequent. In China industrial pollution in the Hailar River watershed and upper reaches of the Argun River on the Russian-Chinese border is a serious threat. The governments of Chita region of Russia and Autonomous Province Nei Mongol of China created a special Workgroup on Environmental Condition of the Argun River Watershed to improve the environmental situation. The international nature reserve “Dauria” actively participates in the activities of the Workgroup. One of the main tasks is optimization of natural resources use and conservation of unique natural complexes in the watershed of the transboundary river.
Fragmentation of habitats and disturbance of animals during reproduction period
The fragmentation of habitats is caused mainly by the problems listed above. Also people create long artificial barriers such as highways, railways, and other infrastructure not taking into account the connections in nature. For instance, the construction of the “Solovyovsk-Choibalsan” railway and its infrastructure on the borders of the three countries led to disruption of the traditional migration ways of dzeren. The influence of this factor together with poaching led to almost total disappearance of this species in Russia and China.
Fragmentation of calving grounds and narrowing of migration ways are observed today because of the increase of numbers of jurts (nomad tents) in key areas for antelopes. So, direct competition of people and wild animals for good lands is another reason of habitat fragmentation. This problem becomes more acute in dry years. Human settlements and grazing sites of domestic animals are tied to natural sources of freshwater (rivers and creeks). As a result while human population density is relatively low in general, it is much higher around wetlands. During droughts steppe vegetation cover decreases, and bogs and swamps drying up become fine grazing fields. Bird nests become easily accessible not only for predators and dogs, but also for ungulates and can be easily destroyed by grazing herds. Also in dry years there is a deficit of waterings, because the most part of steppe wetlands can dry up. Big droughts make nomads move far. Families of herders leave unsuitable areas for big rivers and water bodies and settle in places untouched by fires (absence of last-year grass in spring affects cattle adversely). As a result the numbers of domestic animals and people increase particularly in the sites that are most suitable for nesting of cranes and other rare bird species.