This Critically Endangered Species is Getting a Second Chance

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 subspeciesSaiga tatarica mongolica, who are now estimated to have a population of only 750, according to the World Wildlife Fund.

FWS/Richard Reading

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.

Photo credit: Thinkstock


Jim Ven
Jim Ven2 years ago

thanks for the article.

Carrie-Anne Brown

thanks for sharing, never heard of this species before :)

Katherine Wright
Katherine Wright4 years ago

What a nice change of pace.......I hope they continue to survive and thrive. Wish this was the case for all the animal species {non~human ones that is}.

Donna Ferguson
Donna F4 years ago

I'm glad they're coming back. ty

Franck Rio
Past Member 4 years ago


B J.
BJ J4 years ago

Interesting looking animal & quite the survivalist. Find it hard to believe in 2013 the excuse of traditional Chinese medicine for killing so many animals. Especially when the price of 4470 saiga horns is 22 million dollars. I say BS.

Ellen Gaston
Ellen Gaston4 years ago

What an awesome creature! Leave it to the Chinese to massacre yet another specie. If they are so damn good at math and science, you'd think they'd have figured out what keratin is and take up nail biting.

Kayleigh Harter
Kayleigh Harter4 years ago

At least efforts are being made to save them. Hope it helps!

Cathleen K.
Cathleen K4 years ago

Traditional Chinese medicine needs to be described as what it is - International Terrorism, and it's practitioners rounded up and shot.