As I am driven through Astana, the capital city of Kazakhstan, I see a city being rapidly developed. The Spring is late to arrive and the temperature is -9. There is snow piled everywhere and the river that passes through Astana is frozen solid, with people sat upon it, fishing through drilled holes in the ice. My first wildlife sightings are of the usual suspects – pigeons, gulls, crows and sparrows.
I am here to paint a mural depicting the wildlife of Kazakhstan’s steppe environment, with a particular focus on the saiga antelope – a comical-looking yet critically endangered species which originally inhabited a vast area of the Eurasian steppe zone.
In the morning on my second day in Astana I meet the staff of the Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity of Kazakhstan (ACBK), who tell me more about the conservation issues in this country. One of the main issues for the saiga antelope is that they are poached by individuals in the remote villages of central Kazakhstan. Our project will be carried out in one of these villages, with the aim of boosting the profile of ACBK and the plight of the saiga.
Our journey out to the village of Karasu involves an overnight train and then a further 12 hours by van on decreasingly passable roads, with multiple breakdowns, a few minor crashes, but also some fantastic wildlife including steppe eagle, white-tailed eagle and pallid harrier. We finally arrive into Karasu at 11:30pm, with the final leg of our journey requiring being towed by tractor through a bog. Our place of abode in this village will be in the comfortable and colourful home of Nurysh and Rosa.
The mural painting team comprises Zhanna Aksartova – ACBK’s Conservation Education Coordinator, Ekaterina Aksartova – Zhanna’s sister and a student studying ecology, and myself – Rory McCann – a wildlife artist with a background in conservation.
After a more-than-ample breakfast, the three of us make our way to the village school – a mighty looking building built by the government 3 years ago. This is where we will paint our mural. We are shown around the school by the school director and the village leader – a tour that they are evidently pleased and proud to give. We meet many of the students – all very formally dressed – and I am impressed and also tickled to be given many a business-like handshake by children as young as 3. The first necessary part of our visit is to introduce ourselves to the whole school and explain our reasons for being there. Of course we skirt around the subject of poaching, and talk more about the values of preserving native biodiversity. We also use this as an opportunity to launch our drawing competitions for the students.
Finally we are ready to begin painting the mural! The first brush strokes are always the hardest, but the fear of ruining a perfectly good wall quickly subsides and mural-painting fever takes over. We finish at 8pm on that first day and return home to a delightful dinner of plov – pasta sheets with (in this case) horse meat cut up on top. Being a person of small appetite is not easy in this village and I soon find that my stomach capacity swells as I am actively, almost forcefully, encouraged to ‘please eat more’.
As the days go by, our mural starts to take shape and our following of budding young artists grows. By the third day, I can barely move for all the students who are packed around me producing their own drawings based on the mural painting. Zhanna and Ekaterina do a great job of chatting to the children and getting them involved in side line activities – such as making masks and singing songs about the saiga. The children seem enthralled by the process – exactly the response we were hoping for.
As the eighth and final day of painting approaches I reflect back on the previous week of gargantuan meals, thrice-daily toilet explosions, hundreds of cups of tea, hours spent with Actos – the household dog, dancing with the older students at their disco, and evening observations of hoopoe and northern wheatear on the edge of the village. And especially of our workshop with the younger competition winners – a series of mini drawing challenges, a master class in drawing eyes, and making Saiga gift cards. The older competition winners were given the opportunity to paint an animal on the mural. The enthusiasm and friendliness of the students has really made this experience a rewarding one for me.
The final day dawns. I trudge through the newly saturated streets at 6am to get an early start. We must have the mural finished by 5pm in time for the grand opening. What I haven’t told Zhanna and Ekaterina is that I’m not entirely sure we can finish the job in that time frame! However, the peace and quiet of the early morning allows for rapid progress and once Zhanna and Ekaterina arrive we begin to fill the mural with colour and character. The mural has been sectioned off since the previous day, with curtains across the entrance so that our big unveiling can have maximum dramatic impact. At 4:45pm, the brushes are put down for the last time, with a big sigh of relief. At 5pm, we emerge from behind the curtains to a huge assembled crowd of students, staff and other villagers. A few minutes later, after handing out more prizes and saying words of thanks, we pull back the curtains to reveal the finished mural, with more than 25 steppe animals represented. These include the white-headed duck (used for ACBK’s logo), greater flamingo, little bustard, pallid harrier, steppe eagle, red fox, corsac fox, wild boar, and of course the saiga antelope. The crowd pile into the tight section of corridor, with the mural barely visible for all the people packed in there.
An hour later, as the last people are departing and the final photos are being taken, Zhanna, Ekaterina and I stand back to look upon the mural. We’ve achieved what we came here to achieve – to paint a mural and engage the community in the process. The hope is that this can pave the way for ACBK to conduct further outreach and educational projects in this region with a view to improving the status of the saiga antelope and other species in the surrounding environment.