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Extinction Countdown

Extinction Countdown

News and research about endangered species from around the world

Saiga Success: Critically Endangered Antelope Population Doubles in 5 Years

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saiga herdWell it's about time I had some success to report about the saiga (Saiga tatarica), the critically endangered antelope species native to Kazakhstan and nearby countries in central Asia. Just a few decades ago saiga populations numbered in the millions. The fall of the Soviet Union brought uncontrolled poaching across the saiga's range, and 95 percent of the animals were slaughtered for their meat and horns, which are used in traditional Chinese medicine. By 2010, the first year I wrote about the saiga, the total population had fallen to an estimated 81,000 animals in five isolated populations.

These saiga horns can fetch a few hundred dollars each in China, where they are used as an aphrodisiac or to "treat" a variety of illnesses.

But 2010 was the first of three disastrous years for the saiga. That year, 12,000 saiga died in Kazakhstan from pasteurellosis, an infection that afflicts the lungs. Another mass die-off occurred exactly one year later, this time claiming 450 animals. One year later it happened again. That time nearly 1,000 saiga were found dead from pasteurellosis—although some people actually blamed a Soyuz capsule returning a crew from the International Space Station that had recently landed nearby.

After three deadly years I did not expect this week's report: the Kazakh government now says that its country's saiga population has increased to 137,000 animals, more than double what it had been five years ago. In a statement, the Kazakh Ministry of Environmental Protection credited the increase with an international memorandum signed by Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Mongolia to preserve saiga habitat and grow their populations. As part of that agreement, Kazakhstan has taken some efforts to reduce the impact of new roads and other infrastructure in saiga habitat. That has apparently helped the antelopes to migrate and increased their access to food and water during key breeding seasons, and that has been more than enough to offset the three mass die-offs.

In addition to the good news about saiga numbers, the ministry announced it has now budgeted $14 million for future conservation efforts and educational outreaches to further protect the species. Meanwhile, groups such as the Saiga Conservation Alliance are working to alleviate poverty in the region, which may serve to further reduce poaching. Other organizations such as the Wildlife Conservation Society are conducting research on saiga and developing new paradigms for managing and monitoring large herds.

We don't have reports yet on how saiga populations are doing in other countries, or how the numbers break down by the two saiga subspecies, but all the same, this is a massive victory for a critically endangered species that has suffered mightily in recent years. Let's hope this coming year brings even more good news.

Photos: Saiga antelopes in snowy Kazakhstan, by A. Koshkin, via Zoi Environment Network. A saiga newborn is fitted with a radio in Kazakhstan, via the United Nations Environment Programme. Saiga horns for sale in a Singapore market, by Fincher Trist. All used under Creative Commons license

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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