Distinctive looking creatures for sure, the saiga antelope may yet recover from the brink of extinction and prove to be a conservation success story.
Saiga, who live in the steppe grasslands and semi-arid deserts throughout Russia and Central Asia, are believed to have outlived ancient animals including the woolly mammoth and sabertooth tiger with populations that once numbered in the millions as recently as the last century. Unfortunately, poaching and other threats have continued to cause losses that have driven their numbers down by 95 percent in just the last 15 years.
In 2002, saiga were listed as critically endangered on the Red List of Threatened Species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which is the last stop before a species is listed as extinct in the wild. However, it appears these goat-sized animals are making a comeback in Kazakhstan thanks to efforts to protect them, according to National Geographic.
There are now two subspecies of saiga that make up five distinct populations who live predominantly in Kazakhstan, in addition to Uzbekistan, Russia and Mongolia. Mongolia is home to one of these populations and the subspecies Saiga tatarica mongolica, who are now estimated to have a population of only 750, according to the World Wildlife Fund.
The breakup of the Soviet Union led to uncontrolled hunting. For males, their ringed, semi-translucent horns have proven costly. The demand for their use in traditional Chinese medicine has helped drive poachers to slaughter them, which didn’t just drop their numbers, but left a skewed sex ratio that has made recovery difficult. The male to female ratio is now estimated to be 1 to 100, which means fewer births.
Organizations including the Saiga Conservation Alliance and the Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity of Kazakhstan, among others, have brought people together to protect these animals from disappearing. Their advocates have created protected areas, are monitoring for poachers and are educating the local people about the saiga’s importance and the role they play maintaining vegetation from grazing to spreading seeds during their seasonal migrations.
While other populations are still in danger, their efforts seem to be paying off in Kazakhstan. The population there has grown from 20,000 to 30,000 a few years ago to more than 150,000 at the last count, according to National Geographic.
However, they’re not out of the woods. Harsh winters and droughts have also made recovery difficult for saiga, and changes in weather can cause them to migrate out of protected areas. They also face threats from predation and disease – one bout of what scientists originally attributed to pasteurellosis took out 12,000 of them in 2010, which was followed by two more smaller mass die offs over the next two years. Human development will also play a role in their future. New concerns include a fence along the border with Uzbekistan, which blocks a migration route, in addition to what the outcome of plans to construct a railroad in an area where most of the saiga live will be.
They also continue to face major threats from poaching. Just this month Chinese customs officials seized 4,470 saiga horns from 2,235 animals along the border between Kyrgyzstan and China that were valued at $22 million.
“Last week’s seizure in China is yet another shocking wake-up call. Of all existing mammals, saigas are suffering the fastest rate of decline and extinction is a painfully realistic outcome. The only way out for the saiga is for us humans to act now; otherwise we will lose them forever,” said Maria Vorontsova, of the International Fund for Animal Welfare Russia and CIS Regional Director.
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