Declining human pressure and opportunities for rewilding in the steppes of Eurasia


Aim 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. Location Eurasian steppes of Kazakhstan. Methods 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. Results 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.

Diversity and Distributions
Andrey Dara
Andrey Dara