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Horse graves on the steppes as Kazakhstan is battered by one of worst droughts in living memory

Horses graze in the steppe amid severe drought in the Mangistau region of Kazakhstan in July. (Pavel Mikheyev/Reuters)
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Dead horses are strewn across the arid steppes of Kazakhstan as parts of the country suffer through what has been called one of its worst droughts in living memory.

Much of Central Asia, including western Kazakhstan, has been gripped by a months-long drought. A dry winter and spring were followed by a heat wave that started in June, according to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

Meager reserves of food and water have been exhausted, and for much livestock, there is no longer enough grass to graze on. This has led to the mass death of animals, including horses, sheep and cows, the international aid groups said in a July 30 statement. A majority of drought-affected herders are smallholders, and their only source of income is their livestock.

Gabidolla Kalynbayuly, a 70-year-old who lives in a village in the country’s west, said he has lost about 20 horses this summer. The remainder of his 150-strong herd are malnourished, making them susceptible to disease, he told Reuters.

“When they die out there in the field, we cannot even bring them back to the village to report the death,” he said.

As extreme heat events become more frequent and average temperatures rise worldwide, scientists are becoming increasingly concerned about animals’ ability to survive and adapt.

“We’re going to have more heat waves, and they’re going to get worse,” said Nerilie Abram, a climate scientist at Australian National University. “Heat waves aren’t just uncomfortable, they’re also deadly to humans, and to animals.”

Extreme heat causes significant stress for all animals, according to experts. For horses, prolonged exposure to high temperatures can result in heat stress, heatstroke and dehydration.

Extremely high temperatures have triggered mass die-offs in Canada and the Pacific Northwest this summer. An estimated 1 billion small sea creatures — including mussels, clams and snails — died during that heat wave, according to marine biologists. Millions of mussels baked to death in their shells, The Washington Post reported.

Crushing heat wave in Pacific Northwest and Canada cooked shellfish alive by the millions

Kazakhstan, a major wheat producer, has “suffered reduced crop yields from drought and fires” in recent years, according to the World Health Organization. The United Nations has said that nearly 75 percent of the country, known for its arid steppes and deserts, is at risk of ecological destabilization because of climate change.

In the country’s western Mangistau province, civic activist Zhanibek Kozhyk told Radio Free Europe last month that older people in the area have never experienced anything like the current drought. Thousands of animals are believed to have died in that area.

Mangistau is primarily desert, but herding is possible in some areas. Kozhyk said some farmers resorted to feeding their animals torn-up cardboard soaked in water, as grass dried up and hay and grain prices soared amid worsening conditions.

Last month, the national government imposed a six-month ban on exports of fodder and grain for animal food so that supplies could be redirected to Kazakh farmers. The Mangistau, Kyzylorda and Turkestan provinces in the country’s south and west are among the worst-affected regions, according to aid groups.

Dozens of wild horses died during an extreme heat wave in Australia’s outback in January 2019. Rangers found the dead and dying animals in a dried-up water hole, the BBC reported. More than 20,000 fruit bats died a few months earlier as temperatures soared above 107 degrees. Temperatures that summer were well above average even for the typically hot country, with weeks-long heat waves across much of Australia, according to the country’s weather bureau.

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