She can lie motionless for hours on the coast or be in the water for the sake of saving the Caspian seals. Every spring and autumn, Assel Baimukanova, a camera operator and specialist for ecological education, spends several weeks at a rookery of seals, observing their behavior.
The Caspian seal is the smallest seal in the world, endemic to the Caspian Sea. At the beginning of the 20th century, about a million seals inhabited the Caspian, and today their number has decreased by 90 percent.
‘In 2009, during a helicopter flyby over the coast, we found about 700 seals on islets near the Kendirli Cape, which seals had been using for many years to rest in spring and autumn. This spring there were only 40-50 seals there,’Assel says, ‘The Institute of Hydrobiology and Ecology, where I work, constantly studies seals behavior. Our team is trying to spend a lot of time in rookeries to collect more information about these amazing animals.’
We are sitting with Assel in the office. Seals look at us from photos on the wall – it is impossible to tear oneself away from their black eyes and a mustached smile.
‘It is mesmerizing, isn’t it?’ Assel asks, noticing how I look at a photo, ‘And when you see their eyes closely, it is impossible to convey the whole gamut of emotions. We should save these animals. It would be very pity, if future generations can only see them in photographs. I was born and grown near Lake Markakol, where the issue of preservation of the Markakol lenok was very acute. Therefore, I have been interested in environmental problems since my childhood. This is probably hereditary (she is smiling). My father is a well-known ichthyologist. He studied this species endemic to the region. It was thanks to him that I began to engage in filming and studying seals.
Caspian seals are fearful animals and do not allow getting close to themselves. To take a photo of them, Assel has to disguise herself and be literally invisible.
‘The main task is not to scare seals away, because they immediately go into water,’ she says, ’Sometimes I crawl for several hours to overcome 500 meters. In 2016, I was lucky to filming them very closely, being on an island in the Kendirli Bay. My colleague and I wanted to quietly approach the rookery underwater, but seals felt us and left. My colleague decided to return to the boat for equipment, and I was staying on the shore. My patience was rewarded. After some time, seals began to haul out, not paying attention to me. Apparently, they decided that I was also a seal. I took out my camera and started shooting. It was amazing to observe them very closely.
In 2008, the Caspian seal was categorised as an endangered species on the Red List of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (The IUCN). Since 2006, hunting on these mammals has been prohibited in Kazakhstan, but the population is reducing.
‘There are many factors that damage the Caspian seal population,’ the interlocutor continues, ‘One of the problems is fishing net, in which seals get entangled. If they cannot get free, then they die. But even if animals manage to get out of fishing gears, the wounds from nets lead to their death sometimes. For example, in 2016, I found a seal that got entangled in fishing net, but we were not able to rescue the animal. To treat the wounded, we should have a special rehabilitation center. I hope that one day such an institution is built in Kazakhstan. It is absolutely necessary to create a specialized nature reserve for preservation unique seal rookeries.
Of course, the saddest thing is when we find dead seals on islands. In 2017, there was a case of seals mortality. We examined the coast near Bautino and the tip of the Cape Tyub-Karagan. I had to work with died animals, with their remains – a stinking smell, a large number of seal corpses, and you need to take samples, take pictures and live in conditions where dead seals lie nearby… It seemed to me that I would not able to stand all this. Then my father told me, ‘Life and death cannot exist separately from each other. But if you overpower yourself, you can become a good specialist and you can change something for the better.’ I stayed there. And I do not regret about that.
Another problem is in icebreakers. Caspian seals breed on ice. Passing near rookeries, ships break the ice cover. This often leads to the fact that puppies are separated from their mothers and subsequently either die or lag behind in development.
The Caspian Sea pollution, wild tourism, and the development of sea industrial infrastructure are playing not the least role in the deterioration of the living conditions for seals. Now seals are completely powerless. For example, for the reproduction of fish species, there are special rules for the conservation of their spawning grounds, and there are not such rules for seals. Existing legislation does not protect them.
Together with her father, the famous zoologist Mirgaly Baimukanov, and with other researchers, Assel makes documentaries about seals. For several weeks, the expedition team lives on the islands in tents. Sometimes the “heavenly office” checks them for strength.
‘This spring a storm came and literally destroyed our camp,’ she recalls, ‘The tents were knocked down and torn; the question was about cancelling the expedition. But we decided to stay there. We lived in those tents that were restored. It was very cold, but we were warmed by the thought that we could watch the seals. When I look into their eyes, I understand that they must live! Seals need protection both on local level and national one. It is necessary to improve the Environmental Code in Kazakhstan, as well as create the system of specially protected natural areas, where seal rookeries are located. And this must be done right now. We have no time left. If they disappear, it will become an environmental disaster for the entire Caspian Region.
Correspondent Nadezhda Plyaskina, photographs by Mirgaliy Baimukanov and Leonid Zhdanko, the Institute of Hydrobiology and Ecology, Almaty, Kazakhstan.