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Last Updated: Monday, 22 March, 2004, 15:38 GMT
Russia's elk prove tough to tame
By Artyom Liss
BBC, Kostroma

Trying to milk an elk might seem like a task for the brave or foolhardy.

But it's exactly what Russian biologists are trying to master, on a remote Soviet-era farm.

Dairymaid Ekaterina Goltsova prepares to milk
Milking an elk is best done with care
A domestication experiment in Kostroma, 360 kilometres (220 miles) north of Moscow, focuses on elk - one of the living symbols of Russia.

The Kostroma elk farm was set up more than 40 years ago, but some of its workers admit that so far they have achieved almost nothing.

As the elk are being herded away from enclosures in which they get their breakfasts - a huge serving of porridge and some warm water - head of the experimental farm Nikolai Grachev whispers to me: "You'd better move out of their way.

"Whatever you might hear from some people in this place, these are wild animals, and each weighs well over 500 kilograms."

But dairymaid Ekaterina Goltsova who has been at the farm for nine years - three years more than her boss - disagrees.

We tried to sell our elk... but this is obviously not quite a perfect pet: each elk needs a few hectares of wood to survive
Nikolai Grachev
Farm manager
"They are lovely creatures, they really are. Much more interesting to deal with than cows, but more dangerous, as well.

"I was milking one of them when a motorbike passed by. She got scared, jumped right on top of me, and I had to be sent to hospital.

"But this only goes to prove that you have to be really quick and alert when dealing with them - she really meant no harm!"

Ms Goltsova has been getting no salary for the past few months - partly because the farm earns too little to be self-sufficient, and partly because there is no provision in the national standard of job descriptions for people who professionally milk wild animals.

"It all started in the late 1930s when Stalin thought elk could replace horses in cavalry regiments based in the north," explains Nikolai Grachev.

"But this did not work out, and the idea was abandoned."

Twenty-five years later, he says, Khrushchev decided to try another use for the animals - feeding the country with elk meat.

"Farms like ours appeared throughout the country, but it soon became evident that elk meat was much too expensive," Mr Grachev says.

"We are the only remaining farm of this sort, and our main target is to investigate the process of domestication and to provide elk milk for the nearby hospital - it's very effective against intestinal diseases."

Taming trials

Elk milk is only sent to the hospital a few months a year - there is, as yet, no way to milk the animals all year round. Of the 40 females at the Kostroma farm, most are free to come and go as they please. Much of the herd only spend here part of the year, roaming the woods around the town when they are neither pregnant nor lactating.

We sometimes call (this elk) Bin Laden: he is kind to people he knows but has already forced a few people from nearby villages to spend hours on top of trees
Ekaterina Goltsova
But, in the summer, they always return to give birth to their babies.

And this is when domestication kicks in.

Farm workers quietly take the little ones away. Some then train the little ones to be nice to people and wear a bridle. Others milk the females and generally do all they can to please the elks' motherly instincts.

Males watch from the nearby woods and only approach the farm during feeding time. Not happy to put up with human rivals in the fight for females, they are very difficult to tame.

"This is Yassik," Ms Goltsova points out a huge male who purposefully approaches a pile of timber, the elk version of a good lunch.

"We sometimes call him Bin Laden: he is kind to people he knows but has already forced a few people from nearby villages to spend hours on top of trees.

Man stroking elk
Some staff think elk "safaris" are the way forward
"Ask any local, and he will tell you that a tree is the safest place to be when you are facing an angry elk."

But in the past few years, according to farm manager Nikolai Grachev, fewer and fewer people choose to run when they see an elk.

"For locals, this is nothing but a walking pile of meat. So when they see a elk they shoot - even if they see his collar and know that he is one of our herd. We now have an armed guard here 24 hours a day, and this proved to be the only way to keep our animals alive."

Routine duties of maintaining the herd and keeping unlicensed hunters at bay take up most of Mr Grachev's time. Strategic planning has long been put on the backburner.

Largest type of deer in Europe and Asia
Weighs up to 570 kg (1,300lb)
Lives up to 14 years
Eats grass and bark, can be fed timber production waste
Hunted for skin and horns
Milk contains up to 33% fat, is effective against intestinal diseases
"We get no money from the state any more. The milk is much too expensive to produce. What else can we do? Tourism? But who will want to go to a place with no infrastructure or roads, located hundreds of miles away from Moscow?

"We tried to sell our elk - the asking price was $1,500 per animal. But this is obviously not quite a perfect pet: each elk needs a few hectares of wood to survive. We only sold about a dozen, mostly to governors of Russian regions."

But Ekaterina Goltsova does not share her bosses' pessimism.

"We should do all we can to develop tourism here," she says.

Safari park

"I wish you'd seen the faces of the kids who sometimes come here in the summer. Just give us some money to invest in the infrastructure, and we'll build Europe's best safari park here."

So far, though, sceptics prevail. And with no state support and little if any sources of other income, the experiment does seem to be nearing an end.

The elk will hardly notice it: however kind to people, they will feel perfectly at ease left to their own devices in the Kostroma woods.

Sceptics say that this is the best proof of failure to domesticate them - but Ms Goltsova never misses a chance to remind that it probably took thousands of years to tame cows, let alone to learn to milk them.

"Forty years is nowhere near enough," she says.

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18 Oct 02  |  Europe
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11 Oct 00  |  Sci/Tech


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