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31 October 2023

Assel Baimukanova is Saving the Caspian Seals in the Age of Climate Change

Growing up, Assel Baimukanova saw her father, a marine biologist Mirgaliy Baimukanov, monitoring Markakol lenoks, a species of fish that can only be found in the Markakol Lake in Kazakhstan. She wanted to follow in his footsteps. He, however, wasn’t so keen on it. “Why do you need to be digging in the cold all your life?” Now she is 32, and despite getting her degree in philology as her father wanted, she spent over ten years in the marine biology field working alongside her father and her hydrobiologist sister.

Assel Baimukanova is Saving the Caspian Seals in the Age of Climate Change

Image: Assel Baimukanova

Assel Baimukanova has just returned from her seasonal trip to the Caspian Sea, where she was monitoring the Caspian seals. “The only mammals in the Caspian Sea,” she points out, adding that they are also the smallest seals in the world. She is already planning her next work trip. “The expedition lasts from one to two months, taking into account preparation and fieldwork,” Baimukanova explains. Due to the Caspian Sea shallowing and new islands appearing, the exact whereabouts of the Caspian seals are changing, but thanks to satellite images, they are able to predict where the mammals can be found. Once in the field, their team spends around 14-20 days in two groups. The first group monitors the Caspian seals, while the second stays in the camp. “It is physically and mentally difficult to live there,” she says. 

There was a turning point in her career when, in 2017, together with her team, she was observing dead Caspian seals—in what she calls “the year of mass mortality” with 250 documented deaths. Trying to find their cause of death, they were living next to dead seals for seven days. She admits that she was ready to quit then and there when her father told her, “If you want to protect animals, you must understand that there are two sides of the same coin—death and life. Now we are fighting for life.” That’s when her love and empathy for these unique creatures turned into something more than just an emotional attachment. “During these seven days, I managed to view it as my work and scientific activity. This monitoring had to be carried out efficiently,” she explains, adding that the only way to get her work done was to do so rationally without a “romantic component” and “feelings of compassion.” “After that, I decided not to leave.” Instead, Baimukanova went on to get her Master’s in Ecology and continue her scientific endeavours.