Swan in Askania Nova. Circa 1930.
With 2,250 species of animals in Askania-Nova, the prospect of having a great photo-safari in Southern Ukraine comes to life!
| Steppe Wonder|
Askania Nova. Plan c. 1920
When in July 2009 web surfers across the planet voted for a new set of seven world wonders, Ukrainians supported their own candidate: the Askania-Nova Biosphere Reserve, located in southern Kherson region. Even though their choice did not make the final list, it took a dignified 14th place among all national parks, forests and natural reserves worldwide. Among Europe’s national parks, this unique piece of undisturbed steppe ranked number five!
...The steppe. An endless sea of grassland stretching north-south from Zaporizhya to Lake Sivash and east-west from Melitopol to Kherson. The great Chapelsky pid (“lowland”) is the real oasis of this steppe desert. Today, the Chapelsky lowland is the largest of the three areas comprising the Askania-Nova Biosphere Reserve.
The history of the reserve began in 1828, when Russian Tsar Nicholas І sold a plot near the Chapelsky lowland to the Saxon Count Ferdinand Anhalt Ketten. The plot covered 51,000 hectares, the Count paying just eight kopeks for each hectare. The ambitious Count required such vast lands in order to breed gelded sheep, as his intention was to produce wool for the whole of Russia. In honour of his ancestors, the noble House of Askania, Ferdinand renamed the Chapelsky lowland Askania-Nova. Hence residents of Anhalt-Ketten county moved with their flocks of sheep to the steppe halfway across Europe with the promise of exemption from taxes and military service.
However, in 1856 the Count declared his project economically unfeasible and sold his estate to German entrepreneur Friedrich Jacob Fein. Fein’s daughter married his business partner, Earl J. J. Falz.
One of the new owners from the von Falz-Fein family, Baron Friedrich Eduardovich von Falz-Fein (1863-1920), was fond of zoology from an early age and created a zoo and a botanical garden in the middle of the steppe. He conquered the dry steppe and in 1887 by establishing the first artesian well in Southern Ukraine. The year after, the residents of the Baron’s zoo (bear, deer, roe, hare and 32 species of birds) were joined by imported animals, including three antelopes, some kangaroos and a couple of ostriches Nandu. The park started attracting both tourists and scientists (biologists and zoologists) who arrived to carry out research.
Already at the end of the 19th century, Baron Falz-Fein realised the environmental importance of this unique plot on Europe’s feather grass steppe and set aside a part of his wild steppe land for its own protection. Even after emigrating to the West in 1917, the Falz-Feins followed developments in their former estate, as they cared much about the steppe and its inhabitants.
Today, 11,054 hectares of the reserve are covered with virgin feather grass and looks especially impressive in summer and early autumn. In spring, the reserve becomes carpeted in tulips, irises and hyacinth. More than 400 species of herbs and flowers exist in the Askania-Nova steppe area, 85 of which only grow here and nowhere else.
In 1919, Askania-Nova was proclaimed a national park. Later, the Institute for Acclimatisation and Crossbreeding of Animals was founded in the area. Sheep, cows and pigs more adjusted to the hot steppe climate are still bred here.
But this is not what tourists come looking for: a large part of Askania-Nova is used as grazing land for the animals, which live close to as they would in the wild. With 2,250 species of animals in Askania-Nova, the prospect of having a great photo-safari in Southern Ukraine comes to life! Here, you can see Saiga and Oryx antelopes, American bison and Andean llamas, Shetland ponies and Kudu antelope, African waterbuffalo and zebras, ostriches and blue wildebeests. The pride of the reserve is its numerous herds of Przewalski’s horses, whose breeding started in Askania-Nova back in 1899. More than 150 species of trees and bushes grow in the beautiful park, covering 200 hectares in all. It is also a paradise for ornithologists: swans, flamingos, pheasants, peacocks and peahens, larks, pallid harriers, partridges, bustards and cranes – the total of 270 species of birds live here. Since 1985, the Askania-Nova Biosphere Reserve is listed in the World Network of Biosphere Reserves under UNESCO’s Man and the Biosphere Programme. Regular excursions are offered in the reserve, including visits to the local zoo and park, horseback riding and minibus tours, and much more.
Today, the oldest heir of the Falz-Fein family is Baron Eduard Oleksandrovych von Falz-Fein (born in 1912), the nephew of the reserve’s founding father. Since 1936, he has been a citizen of Lichtenstein, where he resides now in a villa unsurprisingly called Askania-Nova.
This October, a bronze monument to the founder of the reserve, Baron Friedrich von Falz-Fein, will be inaugurated in the reserve. Another great reason to visit Askania-Nova!
| GETTING THERE AND USEFUL INFORMATION|
How to get there from Kyiv: Take the Kyiv-Kherson train to Nova Kakhovka (75 km from the park), Novooleksiyivka (74 km) or Armyansk (60 km) train stations.
Address of F. E. Falz-Fein Askania-Nova Biosphere Reserve:
13 Frunze St., Askania-Nova village, Chaplynsky district, Kherson region
Tel.: +38 05538 612 32/86. Website: ascania-nova.org
Best time to go: From late April until early November.
Admission: Entrance tickets to the zoo and the reserve cost UAH 15. Minibus tours are UAH 35 per person. Cart safari across the reserve steppe (previous booking required): UAH 120.
Accommodation: Hotel Kanna (www.askania-nova-kanna.com.ua; rooms from UAH 250) and Fortuna Camping Ground, tel.: +38 05538 615 86 (from UAH 35 per night).
© Panorama Magazine