Meet the shy saiga from Resurrection Island in Uzbekistan
This infamous Soviet-era biological weapons site in the middle of the Aral Sea is now home to a booming population of rare saiga antelope.
Vozrozdheniye (Resurrection Island) was once the location of the infamous Aralsk-7 military base, a Soviet-era biological weapons test site in the middle of the Aral Sea.
When the Soviet Union fell, the base was abandoned and the population evacuated.
No one was allowed onto the island, except to decontaminate 10 highly contaminated anthrax disposal sites.
The Aral Sea kept shrinking.
Vozrozdheniye became a peninsula.
And when the South Aral Sea completely disappeared in 2008, Resurrection Island rejoined the mainland.
Now it is simply part of the Aralkum Desert, with no protective waters to keep its secrets in.
Or people out.
Considered relatively safe now, Vozrozdheniye is no longer out of bounds.
Local tour operators in Karakalpakstan are eyeing up its disaster tourism potential.
Having said that, the off-road desert drive is not for the fainthearted. And to be honest, the derelict site of the mostly-dismantled military base is achingly bleak.
But there is another, brighter, side to the island’s story. And one that is much more in keeping with its name.
Scientists from the Saiga Conservation Alliance have identified a significant population of critically endangered saiga antelope.
These notoriously shy creatures have not only survived on Vozrozdheniye, they have flourished.
Because Vozrozdheniye was until recently an island, the saiga population was isolated for more than 400 years.
The animals couldn’t migrate, as other saiga groups do, so bred in the same areas where they lived. When huge numbers of migrating saiga died from a mysterious illness in Kazakhstan in 2015, Vozrozdheniye’s antelope were unaffected.
Their isolation probably saved their lives.
More than 100 saiga were living on Vozrozdheniye between 2007-10, with up to 250 on neighbouring Lazarev Island.
Recent footprints suggest the saiga are now walking back and forth across the dry bottom of the Aral Sea between Vozrozdheniye and Lazarev.
International wildlife NGOs are starting to take a keen interest in the animals. Local events like Saiga Day teach school children and their teachers about the rarity of saiga and the importance of environmental conservation.
Currently, Vozrozdheniye has no official protection.
But the Saiga Conservation Alliance is working with local authorities to establish a State Reserve or National Park to safeguard the fragile ecosystem, including numerous native species.
Such a reserve would provide the anchor for the development of nature-based tourism.
And a far more fitting future for “Resurrection Island”.
The author travelled with BesQala, a tour agency based in Nukus who specialise in Aral Sea Eco Tours. Visit their website at besqala.com.
Main image: A female saga antelope (© Adobe Stock)