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A force to be reckoned with

Working to save the Russian Steppe

Story by United Nations Development Programme September 8th, 2016

Rafilia Bakirova, the director of the Orenburg Reserve, is a force to be reckoned with. Of the 100 reserve directors in Russia, only 6 are women – and managing 5 different sites, Rafilia is the only female reserve director who works in a non-contiguous reserve.

With a total area of 38,191 ha, featuring various types of true grassland and arid steppes, the distance between the outermost sites measures almost 1,000 km. It is not surprising, given these distances, that the Orenburg team is on the go all the time.

Rafilia Bakirova, Director of the Orenburg Reserve

Endless Energy

And Ms. Bakirova is there waking up at 5 am to make blini (Russian pancakes) for her team. She proudly shares homemade pickled vegetables, tomatoes and cucumber from her garden. Her passion and exuberance are infectious.

“I never ask something of the team that I’m not willing to do myself. I think it is important to work positively, and involving people in ways that they will succeed is important.” Rafilia Bakirova
Office and living quarters for the Orenburg Reserve team.
Przewalski’s horses on the reserve acclimating to their new home over the harsh winter.

Saving the Steppe

Financed by the Global Environment Facility, the project – supported by UNDP and implemented by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment of the Russian Federation – is working in four regions and four zapovedniks (protected areas) across Russia.

The project, Improving the Coverage and Management Efficiency of Protected Areas in the Steppe Biome of Russia’, works to expand Russia’s steppe protected area system, fight fires, save species on the brink of extinction and reintroduce a species that had gone extinct. The Orenburg Reserve is one of the project’s four areas and the team is working hard to preserve and restore the natural state of the ecosystem.

Reserve map for the Russian Federation - with Ms. Bakirova pointing out one location of the Orenburg Reserve.
Looking at the Orenburg Reserve sites in detail.

A Sea Change

Ms. Bakirova is only the second director in the Orenburg Reserve’s 25 year history, and she recruited a team as tightly-knit as the ecosystem they’re protecting.

Established in 1989, the Orenburg Reserve now includes five sites - Talovskaya Steppe (3,200 ha), Burtinskaya Steppe (4,500 ha), Aytuarskaya Steppe (6,753 ha), and Aschisayskaya Steppe (7,200 ha), with the newest location being added under the project, the Preduralskaya Steppe (16,538 ha).

Extinguishing wildfires and introducing various fire prevention measures, biotechnical and structural measures, the team is also advocating appropriate use of the environment and natural resources through education and enforcement. By posting notices, information boards and signs to educate the neighbouring communities, coupled with strong efforts to detect and suppress violations of the reserve’s rules, the team is saving the steppe. Through environmental education and outreach (e.g. museum and exhibition activities, working with the media, advertising and publishing, work with students, environmental education activities, holidays and promotions, organization of cultural tourism, research and development activities), they are creating a sea change.

Members of the Orenburg Reserve team: Aleksey Ivliev, Rafilia Bakirova, and Andrei Latypov.
Orenburg Reserve team fighting fires before purchasing new equipment.
Installing signs at the boundary of the reserve.
A winning display from a school competition highlighting the wildlife in the Orenburg Steppe.

Wild Horses

Last year, thanks to Rafilia and her team, six Przewalski’s horses arrived at their ancestral home on the Russian steppe. Their very existence is a triumph of international co-operation and scientific expertise. The Przewalski’s horse has been entirely extinct in the wild for nearly 50 years, and had disappeared from the Russian steppe by the late 19th century. However, the Przewalski’s Horse Reintroduction Programme in the Orenburg Reserve has been successful to date and by 2030, it is planned that a semi-free population of 100 to 150 horses will inhabit the Preduralskaya Steppe site.

“The new director made this all possible. Tourism, also focusing on the horse, will be developing on this new site. In terms of ecology, in future, when the population grows, the horses will provide the required grazing pressure on the Preduralskaya Steppe site, which should improve the lives of many animals and plants, reduce the risk of fires, and make the ecosystem whole in general.” Evgeny Kuznetsov, UNDP Steppe project manager.
Przewalski’s horse expert Tatjana Zharkikh, who heads the reintroduction center, captures a candid moment of the horses rolling in the snow.

While the project’s overall objective is to consolidate, expand and improve the management of protected areas within the steppe biome of Russia, the horse reintroduction programme is a key means to ensure long-term conservation of a valuable steppe habitat through restoration of one of its key species.

With Tatjana in the background looking on, the horses enjoy the summer weather.


Construction of a fence around the entire Preduralskaya Steppe site – measuring 52k m in circumference - will be completed in October 2016, serving to protect the reserve’s vulnerable flora and fauna, horses from poachers, and to prevent cross-breeding between wild and domestic horses.

In explaining the utility of the fence to bordering communities, Rafilia’s legal degree serves her well. She excels in her role as mediator, explaining to local communities the benefits of the reserve and its healthy ecosystem.

Construction of the fence around the entire Preduralskaya Steppe site began in May.


In addition to purchasing equipment and vehicles, and supporting the development and adoption of strong policies enhancing cooperation, a firefighting plan was prepared, and public councils established on all 5 sites in the Orenburg Reserve.

With project funding, the team was able to build on their more robust contingency planning by purchasing additional vehicles, additional field and firefighting equipment, along with IT equipment necessary for access to geographical information systems. This new equipment allowed the team to start implementing comprehensive fire protection measures.

The fire protection measures have a symbiotic effect on the ecosystem: thinning out the fuel for future fires also served to secure fodder for the horses in the Przewalski Rehabilitation Center. The team is now equipped with the tools necessary to mow an area of 30 hectares – enabling them to harvest ~20 hay bales, amounting to about 6 tonnes of horse fodder.

Demonstrating the powerful new firefighting hoses.
Tractor with Fire break tool, hay bales, 12 attachments.

Saving Birds

In the open steppe landscapes, power lines are one of the major causes of bird mortality, including red-listed species such as the Saker, Steppe Eagle, and Imperial Eagle. Because existing lines in the area are not fully insulated, birds are frequently electrocuted simply by alighting on these natural perches.

As part of project activities in the Orenburg Reserve, bird protection devices were installed on more than 18 km of power lines. By installing bird protection devices on transmission towers, and transitioning to fully insulated wires, the risks to these vital species have been minimised.


For more information on the Orenburg Reserve, visit: For more information on the overall Steppe project, and conservation efforts in the 3 additional zapovedniks, visit:

Footnote: Text by Andrea Egan and Evgeny Kuznetsov / Photos: Andrea Egan, Natalia Sudets, Tatjana Zharkikh for UNDP-GEF Steppe Project.
Orenburg Steppe, Russia