Kazakh authorities are hunting for three suspected poachers, including one who is alleged to have fatally beaten a wildlife ranger in what is a rare occurrence in Kazakhstan.
The death of Erlan Nurghaliev, who died in a hospital in the capital, Astana, on January 15, has sparked widespread outrage in the Central Asian nation, with the Prosecutor-General’s Office taking charge of the investigation.
The event also highlighted the growing threats to Kazakhstan’s famed saiga, an endangered ancient species of antelope protected under Kazakh law.
Nurghaliev and his partner, Pyotr Nitsyk, both rangers with the state Okhotzooprom agency, had been on patrol near Lake Tengiz -- about 150 kilometers southwest of Astana on January 13 -- when they discovered car tracks in the snow and heard gunshots. They also saw freshly killed saiga.
Nitsyk told reporters that a second car of rangers went to try and find the alleged poachers' cars, while Nitsyk and Nurghaliev followed the tracks and caught up with the suspects as they drove away.
Nitsyk said they fired warning shots at the poachers before they were able to block the car’s movement.
The cars stopped and the rangers confronted the men, who attacked them, according to Nitsyk, badly beating Nurghaliev and hitting him in the head with a rifle butt.
The alleged poachers drove away, taking the rangers’ car keys and a GPS locator, Nitsyk said. The second patrol of rangers couldn’t immediately locate Nitsyk and Nurghaliev, whose age was given as either 53 or 55, delaying his medical treatment.
On January 19, the Interior Ministry released images of the suspects and their names, asking people to help locate them.
Nurghaliev was hospitalized in an Astana hospital and died two days later without regaining consciousness.
Some Kazakh media said it had been more than 10 years since the last wildlife ranger had been killed on duty, though that could not be immediately confirmed.
Many Kazakhs are angry at the problem of poaching, but also wonder why Nurghaliev wasn't given emergency medical care or flown by helicopter to a hospital.
Interior Minister Kulmukhanbet Kasimov defended the decision not to dispatch a helicopter, citing bad weather.
Erlan Abdrakhmanov, a top official with Okhotzooprom, hailed Nurghaliev’s professionalism and love for his job.
"He was not afraid to go out in any kind of weather. He loved and defended nature very much. He was a firm believer in the idea that the fauna of our republic should flourish," Abdrakhmanov said on January 17.
With bulging eyes, a tubular snout, and a spiraled horn, the saiga is as distinctive as it is endangered, and they are found mainly in Kazakhstan but also in other Central Asian countries.
The animals are sought by poachers, who sell their horns to black-market buyers in China, where they are used in traditional folk medicine.
In 2015, a mass die-off of the animals on the Kazakh steppe mystified scientists and conservationists, sparking worries that the population which had been gradually recovering would again be critically threatened.
Following the mass die-off, officials estimated the saiga population at no more than 130,000.
In 2017, there were an estimated 156,000 saiga in Kazakhstan, according to the Agriculture Ministry.