Kazakhstan has seen a promising increase in the country’s population of the critically endangered Saiga antelope, which has more than doubled since 2019. Conservationists are hopeful that the long-term survival of the steppe-dwelling animal, known for its distinctive bulbous nose, is now looking more positive.
1. Home to a rare animal
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), whose “Red List” is the scientific reference for threatened wildlife, Saiga is among five critically endangered antelope species. Kazakhstan’s vast steppe is home to the majority of these animals, whilst Russia’s Kalmykia region and Mongolia host smaller numbers. Since 2019 when the last aerial survey was carried out in Kazakhstan (an aerial survey could not be completed in 2020 due to the coronavirus), the country’s Saiga population has risen from 334,000 to 842,000. The figures suggest the animal’s numbers are continuing to rebound after they saw a huge die-off in 2015. In a statement Kazakhstan’s ecology ministry said the boom was “an indicator of the effectiveness of measures to conserve Saiga populations and counteract poaching”.
2. 2015 wipe out and other threats
In 2015 the Kazakhstan Saiga population saw around 200,000 of the antelopes, well over half the total global population at the time, wiped out by what scientists later determined was a nasal bacterium that spread in unusually warm and humid conditions. Other threats to the Saiga, include climate change and the expansion of human activity through farming and infrastructure projects. Earlier this year the ecological ministry estimated that around 350 female Saiga antelopes had been killed by lightning amid storms in the west of the country.
3. Poaching threat
The major threat to the Saiga is poaching, fuelled by demand for their horn in traditional Chinese medicine. Kazakhstan’s leaders have pledged to intensify their crackdown on poaching after two state rangers were killed by poachers in 2019, causing a national outcry. One of the victims, Yerlan Nurgaliyev, is honoured with a mural on an apartment building in Almaty, the country’s largest city. He is depicted cradling one of the animals, seen as national symbols. However recent police cases show the scale of the threat of poaching which the species is facing; in April, the interior ministry reported detaining two men responsible for poaching more than 800 Saiga horns, which they said were worth millions of dollars. they stated that the detainees had “cut off the horns of the dead Saigas and stored them for sale” since autumn of last year.
.@ACBK_Kazakhstan field staff and state rangers take part in the #saiga aerial census 🚁!— Altyn Dala Conservation Initiative (@AltynDala) April 15, 2021
The saiga antelopes are crucial for #steppe ecosystem, and we will soon find out if their quantity has increased since 2019. @ohotzoo pic.twitter.com/qdj40KLQAL
4. Conservation efforts
On a recent trip to steppe land in central Kazakhstan during Saiga calving season, analysts told AFP that they believe the government’s drive to enforce anti-poaching laws is making positive progress. Albert Salemgareev, an expert with the Kazakhstan-based Altyn Dala Conservation Initiative that works closely with the government and international partners to preserve Saiga, said the project’s visits to the region had showed a “positive dynamic”. “Not only are the numbers of Saiga increasing, but the number of males relative to the number of females is also growing,” said Salemgareev, whose group drove and hiked between saiga populations weighing and marking newborns. Five years ago the male to female ratio was as low as one to 18 because of the demand for the male horn, however recent visits to one Saiga region in the northwest of the country suggested a ratio closer to “one to seven, or one to eight”, Salemgareev estimated. A positive change for the Kazakhstan Saiga population and the species worldwide.