Magazine article Russian Life

Field of Dreams: Can Ecotourism Save Kalmykia's Wild Tulips?

Magazine article Russian Life

Field of Dreams: Can Ecotourism Save Kalmykia's Wild Tulips?

Article excerpt

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. …

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