Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences - Biogeography

Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences | Geography Department | Biogeography | News_folder | Post-Soviet rewilding in the Eurasia steppes results in increasing landscape connectivity

Post-Soviet rewilding in the Eurasia steppes results in increasing landscape connectivity


Matthias Baumann, Johannes Kamp, Florian Pötzschner, Benjamin Bleyhl, Andrey Dara, Brett Hankerson, Alexander V. Prishchepov, Florian Schierhorn, Daniel Müller, Norbert Hölzel, Roland Krämer, Ruslan Urazaliyev, Tobias Kümmerle 


Summary: In the steppes of Kazakhstan, large-scale passive rewilding maybe taking place, substantially increasing protected area connectivity! Using a unique combination of satellite imagery and historic topographic maps we developed a set of spatial indicators that allowed to spatially assess post-Soviet trends in human influence. 



Large and ecologically functioning steppe complexes have been lost historically across the globe, but recent land-use changes may allow the reversal of this trend in some regions. We aimed to develop and map indicators of changing human influence using satellite imagery and historical maps, and to use these indicators to identify 

areas for broad-scale steppe rewilding. 


Eurasian steppes of Kazakhstan. 


We mapped decreasing human influence indicated by cropland abandonment, declining grazing pressure and rural outmigration in the steppes of northern Kazakhstan. We did this by processing ~5,500 Landsat scenes to map changes in cropland between 1990 and 2015, and by digitizing Soviet topographic maps and examining recent high-resolution satellite imagery to assess the degree of abandonment of >2,000 settlements and >1,300 livestock stations. We combined this information into a human influence index (HI), mapped changes in HI to highlight where rewilding might take place and assessed how this affected the connectivity of steppe habitat.


Across our study area, about 6.2 million ha of cropland were abandoned (30.5%), 14% of all settlements were fully and 81% partly abandoned, and 76% of livestock stations were completely dismantled between 1990 and 2015, suggesting substantially decreasing human pressure across vast areas. This resulted in increased 

connectivity of steppe habitat. 


Main conclusions: 

The steppes of Eurasia are experiencing massively declining human influence, suggesting large-scale passive rewilding is taking place. Many of these areas are now important for the connectivity of the wider steppe landscape and can provide habitat for endangered megafauna such as the critically endangered saiga antelope. Yet, this window of opportunity may soon close, as recultivation of abandoned cropland is gaining momentum. Our aggregate human influence index captures key components of rewilding and can help to devise strategies for fostering large, connected networks of protected areas in the steppe. 


Link to the manuscript: https://doi.org/10.1111/ddi.13110 


Citation: Baumann M et al. Declining human pressure and opportunities for rewilding in the steppes of Eurasia. Divers Distrib. 2020;00:1–13. https://doi.org/10.1111/ddi.13110



Photo: Johannes Kamp