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Askania-Nova: The Ukrainian Serengeti

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In Soviet times, Askania-Nova was part of a scientific institution, which focused on animal husbandry and experiments in animals acclimatization and hybridization. In 1995, the nature reserve finally managed to separate from the institute to pursue its original conservationist agenda. The institute (pictured) still operates, though its importance has been significantly downgraded. Image by Dimiter Kenarov. Ukraine, 2014.

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One of the entrances to the Askania-Nova steppe. Image by Dimiter Kenarov. Ukraine, 2014.

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The steppe of Askania-Nova. In September the steppe plants (mostly fescue and feather grasses) have already withered, but they regain their full splendor in late April and early May. Image by Dimiter Kenarov. Ukraine, 2014.

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Viktor Gavrilenko, the director of Askania-Nova steppe reserve. He has served in the position for already 25 years. Image by Dimiter Kenarov. Ukraine, 2014.

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Przewalski's horses in the steppe. Askania-Nova was instrumental in preserving the Przewalski's horse from extinction. Image by Dimiter Kenarov. Ukraine, 2014.

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The natural history museum of Askania-Nova. Image by Dimiter Kenarov. Ukraine, 2014.

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Viktoria Viktorovna, a museum worker at Askania-Nova, with the portrait of Sophia Falz-Fein, the mother of the founder of the reserve, Friedrich Falz-Fein. Image by Dimiter Kenarov. Ukraine, 2014.

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Bringing water to the Barbary sheep at the Askania-Nova zoo. Nearly 300 people from the town of Askania-Nova and the surrounding villages work here. Image by Dimiter Kenarov. Ukraine, 2014.

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Vera Kravchenko, a resident of Askania-Nova and now a pensioner, used to milk the Eland antelopes at the reserve. The Soviets attempted to develop the industrial milking of antelopes. The rich milk was used in the treatment of gastroenterological problems. Image by Dimiter Kenarov. Ukraine, 2014.

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The dendrological park Askania-Nova. Created by Friedrich Falz-Fein, the park today spreads on a territory of 167 hectares and features 1030 taxa of trees. Since the steppe has a semi-arid climate, the park is artificially irrigated through deep artesian springs. In the early twentieth century it gave Askania-Nova the nickname "oasis on the steppes." Image by Dimiter Kenarov. Ukraine, 2014.

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Askania-Nova has its own science laboratory. Pictured is a cabinet full of samples of parasites extracted from various wild animals. Image by Dimiter Kenarov. Ukraine, 2014.

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A young Chapman's zebra at Askania-Nova. Image by Dimiter Kenarov. Ukraine, 2014.

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A schoolgirl takes a photo of a crowned crane. Image by Dimiter Kenarov. Ukraine, 2014.

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The cemetery of Askania-Nova with an air defense radar in the background. The border with Crimea is only a few kilometers away and the Ukrainian side is preparing for defense against a potential invasion of the Russian army. Image by Dimiter Kenarov. Ukraine, 2014.

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Sunday service at the church of Askania-Nova. Image by Dimiter Kenarov. Ukraine, 2014.

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Nina, Nadia and Katerina, residents of Askania-Nova, enjoy shots of moonshine vodka from plastic cups in front of their apartment building. Nadia's grandson is with the Ukrainian army in Donetsk, in the eastern part of the country. They all toast to peace before emptying their cups. Image by Dimiter Kenarov. Ukraine, 2014.

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Nikolai Lobanov, a 90-year-old veteran of the Battle of Stalingrad, first came to Askania-Nova in 1952 and eventually became one of the leading authorities on Przewalski’s horse breeding and conservation. He is also an accomplished artist, as the paintings in his house attest. Image by Dimiter Kenarov. Ukraine, 2014.

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Early morning counting of cranes at Askania-Nova. Tens of thousands of common cranes (Grus grus) congregate here in September and October, resting and feeding on their annual migratory journey from Scandinavia and west Siberia to the Middle East and east Africa. Image by Dimiter Kenarov. Ukraine, 2014.

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Alexandr Mezinov records sightings of cranes in his notepad. Image by Dimiter Kenarov. Ukraine, 2014.

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Cranes over the Askania-Nova steppe at sunrise. Image by Dimiter Kenarov. Ukraine, 2014.

The steppe is perhaps the most important geographic concept in Ukraine, the defining historical, economic, and symbolic marker. For much of the past two thousand years, it was Europe’s most contested frontier, a region of bloody turmoil and constantly shifting borders. Once known in Russian as dikoe pole, “the wild field,” the steppe was populated by a mixture of nomadic and semi-nomadic groups, and it took the Russian Empire until the end of the eighteenth century to bring most of them under imperial control. But that did not necessarily translate into peace. Ukraine, “the borderland,” has been the site of some of the worst atrocities—pogroms, famines, and wars—in the 20th century. And today, sadly, it has become a battlefield yet again. Like the American prairie, the steppe is a place where myth and reality blend together, the meeting point of absolute beauty and absolute violence.

The most famous natural feature of the steppe is, of course, the endless expanse of billowing grass. “Nature has nothing fairer that these steppes, with their surface like a green-gold ocean, strewn with a million flowers,” wrote Nikolai Gogol in Taras Bulba, his novel about the brave frontiersmen of the steppe, the Cossacks. The fertile black soil, chernozem, sustained the rich grass, feeding the pastoral communities, while later it supported one of the most productive grain industries in the world.

But the gradual colonization and settlement of the steppe, the population explosion (from 380,000 in the early eighteenth century to 25 million in the early twentieth) and the advent of ever more sophisticated agricultural machinery meant that much of the original wilderness quickly began to disappear.

In the late 19th century, Friedrich Falz-Fein, a progressive landowner and heir of German colonizers, decided to fence off part of his estate of Askania-Nova in southern Ukraine, close to the shores of the Black Sea, to protect the original flora from the plow and the sheep. But his ambition went further: He wanted to introduce wild animal species, local but also foreign, that thrive in steppe-like environments. In a sense, Falz-Fein was an early, if idiosyncratic, proponent of what conservation biologists may today call “rewinding.”

Soon enough, Askania-Nova housed herds of critically endangered Saiga antelopes (once abundant on the Eurasian steppe), buffaloes, zebras, camels, ostriches, wildebeests, and even kangaroos, many living in semi-wild conditions—a kind of Ukrainian Serengeti. In 1899, Falz-Fein sponsored an expedition to Mongolia, which procured Przewalski’s horses, the last truly wild horse—an effort that decades later would prove instrumental for saving that species from extinction. He also founded a zoo and an enormous dendrological park, irrigated through deep artesian springs in the middle of the arid landscape, which earned Askania-Nova the nickname “oasis on the steppes.” When Czar Nicholas II visited in 1914, he was so impressed he made Falz-Fein nobility.

During the Russian Civil War, the reserve was devastated and about three-fourths of the animals perished. When hostilities ended, Askania-Nova was nationalized and gradually rebuilt and expanded. But the Soviet focus on agricultural production created much tension between the utilitarian, practically minded agronomists, who simply wanted to raise livestock and grow grains (or conduct junk science with animal hybridization) and the more ecologically-minded staff, who wished to preserve the virgin steppe for scientific observation and for its own sake. As the environmental historian Douglas Weiner writes in his book Models of Nature, “[In] Askania-Nova… all of the salient problems and most crucial developments of Soviet conservation and ecology were interwoven.”

Only in the 1980s, as the Soviet regime was falling apart, did real work to restore Askania-Nova’s true conservation mission commence, as it became part of UNESCO’s network of biosphere reserves. In 2008, its popularity growing and boasting well over 100,000 visitors each year, Askania-Nova was voted one of the Seven Natural Wonders of Ukraine, and went on to represent the country in an international initiative called New7Wonders of Nature. Even though it did not win, the recognition was sufficient honor.

Today Askania-Nova is still functioning and one could visit the virgin steppe, look at the Saiga antelopes and the Przewalski’s horses, see the migrating cranes, walk around the dendrological park or the zoo. The current conflict in Ukraine, however, has scared most visitors away. Air defense radars and batteries surround the town, ready to respond to a Russian invasion. Military checkpoints have been set up on the main roads in the region, where gruff camouflaged men dig trenches and wield Kalashnikovs.

In times of war, focused on the immediate task of survival, people tend to forget about wild animals and the natural environment. Our histories barely mention the devastation wrought by human wars on non-human species. In eastern Ukraine, already hundreds of thousands of acres of steppes—and the animals living there—have been obliterated. Yet, the administration and staff at Askania-Nova persevere in their invisible task, hoping to save Ukraine’s natural heritage for the next generation.

I visited the Askania-Nova nature reserve in late September/early October of 2014, when the steppe’s iconic fescue and feather grasses, dotted by red tulips and purple irises, had long gone to seed under the harsh summer sun. But the immensity of the landscape, stretching out in all directions, was still dizzying. “You go on and on and there is no way to tell where it begins and where it ends,” wrote Anton Chekhov at the close of the 19th century in one of my favorite stories, “The Steppe.” I can attest to that: The steppe is endless.