Again and again, Russian nature photographer Igor Shpilenok felt the pull of Kalmykia's wide-open steppe. Few other places in Russia have this hold on him.
For five years running, as each spring drew near, Shpilenok packed his truck and headed south toward Kalmykia from his home in the Bryansk Forest. His photographic mission was twofold: to capture the saiga antelope giving birth to their young and to photograph the steppe in bloom with thousands of wild tulips.
After several spring expeditions, Shpilenok finally photographed the rare saiga antelope and their young (see Russian Life, Sep/Oct 2003). The wild tulips, however, continued to elude him.
In most years, he would encounter clumps of tulips amid the feather grass here and there, but the apparition of a boundless steppe cloaked in an undulating blanket of red tulips remained beyond his grasp. The flowers bloom en masse some time between early April and early May, and it is difficult to predict the exact date of their arrival. Each year Igor was either too late or too early, or there were too few tulips to create the stunning images of his imagination. During a dry and hot spring season, the tulips can bloom in force for as few as three to five days.
In recent years, the mass tulip bloom has become relatively rare, and fields of wild tulips few and far between. Their historical range is quite broad –extending from Ukraine, across southern Russia, northern Central Asia, northern Iran, and China – yet in 1999 Russian botanists placed the flower in the Russian Red Book of rare and endangered species, because they were concerned that the wild tulips are becoming too sparse to sustain themselves.
Occasional clumps of a few bulbs, which flower in early spring, can still be seen throughout the tulips' Russian range, but the extensive steppes of yesteryear – abloom in a glorious and synchronized accord of white, yellow, pink, purple, and red – are becoming a thing of the past. There are two main reasons for this. First, the once widespread fields of wild tulips have been tilled under to make way for croplands. Second, they are being plucked to near extinction by overzealous bouquet gatherers.
Today, the spring spectacle of a copious cover of wild tulips bursting into simultaneous bloom persists only in a few small areas in the vicinity of Lake Manych, which borders the Rostov Region and the Republic of Kalmykia. While collecting wild tulips is prohibited in a nature reserve, including Lake Manych and its islands, the majority of the larger tulip fields are outside the bounds of the preserve. Without a formal body to safeguard them, these remaining relics are under siege.
Each spring thousands of “wild tourists,” as they are called in Russian, descend on the tulips, voraciously picking them, often by the bucket- or trunk-load, for temporary flower arrangements. But the flowers wilt quickly once picked, and most are tossed by the roadside. Country folk and summer gardeners also dig up the bulbs to plant in their flowerbeds.
Most visitors don't realize that the tulips are endangered and that their disturbance is illegal. Locals aver that they have been coming here unhampered for years, bringing their children, as did their parents before them. Elders who grew up with the spring tulip spectacle reminisce that, less than a half of century ago, fields of wild tulips fronted their villages. Today, blossom-seekers must travel hundreds of kilometers to remote parts of the steppe to find them.
Conservationists fear that, if left unchecked, even these last areas of pristine steppe will become a distant memory. Scientists add that global warming, coupled with the diminished influence of grazing by wild ungulates such as the saiga, which suppresses plant communities that complete with the flowers, has also contributed to the tulips' demise.
botanists have linked the tulips of the eastern Eurasian steppe – known by two Latin names: Tulipa gesneriana and Tulipa schrenkii – to the ancestor of popular cultivated tulips, including world-famous Dutch varieties. The Ottoman Empire – which extended to the steppes of modern-day southern Russia – first gave Europe and Holland the tulip in the sixteenth century (the era of Ivan the Terrible and Queen Elizabeth). Before that, the Turks (and the Persians before them) are believed to have cultivated tulips in their gardens for centuries, since at least the Byzantine era.
Wild tulips can live 50-70 years, their buried bulbs generating new flowers year after year. Yet when their flowers and stems are cut, the buried bulb often cannot draw in sufficient nutrients to survive and, as a result, it dies. Unlike their domesticated counterparts, which can reproduce through subterranean offshoots, wild tulips only reproduce through seed dispersal. The seeds mature throughout the summer, and the young plants born from these seeds will only produce flowers after 10 or 15 years.
Local scientists, along with botanists from Moscow and St. Petersburg, have been studying the wild tulips for decades. In an attempt to understand the extent of the threats to tulips from “wild tourists,” scientists in 2010-2013 monitored a 2,500 hectare area of steppe. During the period of mass blooming, as many as 5,000 “wild tourists” visited the study plot, eradicating an estimated 50,000-70,000 wild tulips. According to Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment guidelines for calculating environmental impacts, this amounts to an ecosystem damage of $400 million a year.
Conservationists assert that scientific monitoring and official Red Book protected status is not enough to save the wild tulips. While picking the flowers and uprooting the bulbs is punishable with a relatively high fine of $75 per instance, the law and the fines are not being enforced. Local advocates say it would not be difficult to check uncontrolled plucking by simply patrolling two or three roads that lead to the last remaining fields. Yet apparently even this is a burden for financially strapped local enforcement agencies.
As a result, local activists are taking matters into their own hands. Wildlife biologist and nature photographer Valery Moseykin, together with his son Dmitry Moseykin, a biologist and the Director of the nonprofit Wildlife Travel, joined with the Kalmyk Wildlife Foundation to organize a Wild Tulip Conservation Festival. Having witnessed the success of international tulip festivals featuring the wild tulips' artificially cultivated descendants in Turkey, Holland, Canada, and other countries, the father-and-son team sought to do the same for the wild tulips. In 2012, the first festival was held to coincide with the mass blooming of the tulips in late April.
The Wild Tulip Conservation Festival promotes the blooming fields of wild tulips as a viable ecotourism destination and one of Russia's great natural wonders. Organizers hope to divert the hoards of “wild tourists” from picking the flowers, funneling their enthusiasm for the natural phenomenon into more contemporary and eco-friendly ways of enjoying the spectacle. Visitors can not only enjoy the floral scenery, but also observe birds such as Dalmatian and great white pelicans, red-breasted goose, spoonbills, and others in large colonies on Manych Lake. Traveling a short distance over the steppe, they may encounter herds of rare saiga antelopes or see steppe eagles circling above. Participants in the festival also learn about the rich cultural heritage of Kalmykia – settled by descendants of Genghis Khan and today a European center of Buddhism.
According to Dmitry Moseykin, “The project will also help create jobs to service the budding ecotourism industry, in turn providing local residents alternative sources of income.”
The first festival garnered the support of the United Nations Development Programme devoted to “Improving the coverage and management of protected areas in the steppe biome of Russia.” It lobbied the Russian Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment to designate state natural monuments in areas of mass blooms. Such formal governmental status would allow regulation of the lands and enforcement of strict visitation guidelines. “Tourism in Kalmykia is largely unorganized and haphazard,” said UNDP Public Relations Liaison Natalya Sudets. “As a consequence of uncontrolled visitation, the tulips are often trampled by people and automobiles.”
Conservationists are confident that by saving the tulips – a symbol of the ancient steppes of a distant past – entire ecosystems will be protected, including that of other indicator species, such as the saiga antelope, demoiselle crane, little bustard, and steppe eagle.
shpilenok arrived at Manych Lake in early April last year, just in case the flowers bloomed early. As a result, he was on hand to photograph the first “wild tourists,” as they arrived to plunder the tulip fields, as well as the cultural events (choruses cloaked in Kalmykian native dress and performing traditional rituals) of the annual festival.
Yet he also finally succeeded in photographing the fields in bloom.
By publishing photos of the wild tulip and the people dedicated to protecting them on his website (shpilenok.com) and blog (consistently one of Russia's most popular) and in the Russian media, Shpilenok feels he did his part to promote the tulips' conservation.
“I hope that the people of the Russian steppe will embrace these important measures to save the tulips,” Shpilenok said. “Only they can step up as guardians of a great natural wonder, ensuring it will be passed on to future generations, and not just exist in pretty pictures.” RL
In April 2014, visitors from Kalmykia, Rostov, and other regions of Russia attended the third annual festival amid the veritable field of dreams. In conjunction with the festival, organizers held a conference on promoting sound practices in ecotourism to help conserve the wild tulips.
In 2015, Moseykin and his collaborators hope to involve tourists and volunteers from beyond Russia. “Russian visitors and our tour operators are only now learning the concept of eco-friendly tourism and how to be proactive in protecting the environment,” he said. “By inviting volunteers from other countries to participate, we not only learn from their experiences, but also help Russians understand that the wild tulips are not just significant to Kalmykia or Russia, but to the world... This is something everyone should see at least once in their lives.”
To attend or volunteer for the 2015 festival, visit: wildifetravel.ru, or TulipFest.ru
For more information in English: savesteppe.org/project/en
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