The fantastic beasts of Kazakhstan (and where to find them)

Kazakhstan’s unique location means it offers an array of habitats – from dry steppes to wetlands, coniferous forests to mountain ranges – to scores of animal species. As you embark on your journey to explore what Kazakhstan’s wildlife has to offer, here are four fantastic to look out for.

  1. Steppe eagle 

Just below the sun on the Kazakh flag, a golden steppe eagle takes flight. For centuries, the eagle has been a symbol of power on the flags of Kazakh tribes. On the national flag, it represents independence, freedom and flight to the future. 

Seeing the steppe eagle in real life, it is clear why this majestic creature has a place on the Kazakh flag. With wingspans measuring up to 2.15m, the steppe eagle can travel as far as 17,000km during migration seasons – a testament to their strength and resilience. In the months of November and December, visitors stand a good chance to see the eagles in the Tien Shan foothills as they migrate south.   

  1. Pika 

Not to be confused with the iconic Pokemon from the famed Japanese animated series, the pika is a small mammal that calls the mountains of Central Asia home. The cute egg-shaped creature from the same family as rabbits and hares is a far cry from a beast. But it is still not to be trifled with: The pika is very territorial and will gather in large numbers when under threat.

While hiking in Kazakhstan, you can look out for four species of pika. Unlike their counterpart the Ila pika, which is native to northwestern China, Kazakhstan’s pikas are not endangered and can often be spotted in the Ural Mountains during summer. 

  1. Saiga antelope 

While recognised for their funny appearance – floppy nose and all – the state of the Saiga antelope is no laughing matter. More than 200,000 of them, or about half the population, were wiped out by a disease in 2015 in Kazakhstan, alarming conservationists. Fortunately, with the recent surprise discovery of 500 newborn calves, it seems like the population is beginning to bounce back. Nonetheless, the Saiga antelope is still illegally poached for its horns and remains critically endangered.

To see this iconic long-nosed creature, head over to the steppes of Irgiz-Turgay state nature reserve in Northern Kazakhstan. Established as a safe breeding ground for Saiga antelope, this sanctuary is your best bet at catching a glimpse of the Saiga antelope before it’s too late.

  1. Snow leopard 

The snow leopards of Kazakhstan might be changing their spots – not the ones on their coats but their favourite haunts. While snow leopards are typically found in the Aksu-Zhabagly nature reserve, several have been spotted along a popular hiking trail near Almaty during the coronavirus lockdown. Deemed the “ghost of the mountain”, the elusive snow leopard continues to fascinate the Kazakhs. In fact, it can be found on Almaty’s official city seal.

With current plans to rebuild their population, snow leopards might be making their comeback soon. Who knows? You might spot one on your next hike near Almaty.

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