The grasslands of Russia and Kazakhstan are host to an animal that has roamed the earth since the Ice Age, but may soon become extinct: the saiga, a hump-nosed antelope whose population has declined by more than 95 percent since the early 1990s.
The critically endangered saiga, which stands just about two feet tall, is in urgent need of protection from poachers who illegally kill the animal for its horns and sometimes, its meat. In the early 1990s, millions of these antelopes freely roamed the grasslands of Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Russia and Uzbekistan. But by 2003, only 30,000 had survived.
“We must take immediate action to protect habitat and stop poaching for saiga horns,” said Lhagva Lkhagvasuren of the Mongolian Academy of Sciences. “Otherwise we will have only empty deserts with no saiga. Future generations will never forgive us for our carelessness.”
Today, an estimated 150,000 of the animals remain in the wild, due in large part to conservation efforts made to restore the population. But an increase in the saiga’s numbers has also come with an increase in poaching, causing the animal’s safety to remain a continuous problem.
“While the recent increase in saiga numbers is encouraging, it has also resulted in an increased poaching pressure. With saigas becoming more abundant again, hunting has become more easy and thus lucrative, [since] less fuel has to be spent in search of the animals and more males can be killed at one go,” said Maria Karlstetter, Saiga Programme Manager at Fauna & Flora International, in an e-mailed statement.
Unless initiatives are taken to revive the dwindling saiga population, most people will never come in contact with the unique-looking antelope, which is most often recognized by its bulging proboscis that scientists suspect may be used to warm the cold winter air or filter out dust.
But poachers are after the antelope for its horns, which are used in Chinese medicine, and have hunted the animal extensively throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. To protect endangered species of rhinoceros from being hunted, some conservationist groups in the early 1990s even encouraged hunters to go after the saiga instead. And now, the steppes of Russia and Kazakhstan are empty, devoid of the antelopes that once roamed the land in herds of thousands.
“The saiga have fallen victim to the insatiable demand for wildlife products for the medicinal – and often prestigious – purpose, resulting in a heavy toll on an increasing number of species,” Karlstetter said.
While poachers have been the main cause of the mammal’s endangerment, the saiga has also faced a number of other hardships. Mass die-offs have killed thousands of the animals for reasons still largely unclear to scientists. In May 2010, 12,000 saigas were found dead in the Ural region of Russia. In May 2011, 450 of the animals were found dead at the same site. Some scientists have suspected pasteurellosis, a bacterial infection, to be behind the mysterious deaths. Others suspected poisoning or contamination of pasture grass – even though there is no concrete evidence supporting that theory. But while the mass die-offs significantly affected the already-dwindling saiga population, the biggest threat to the endangered species remains poachers hoping to cash in on the animals’ horns. These are frequently sold in China, where the saiga became extinct in the 1960s.
Additionally, keeping the animals in zoos is challenging: past attempts have proven largely unsuccessful, since saigas are difficult to keep alive in captivity. In several instances in which the mammals were kept captive at zoos, they fatally injured themselves while trying to escape.
“They have a strong flight instinct and often blindly ran into the fences, broke their necks, jaws or hips and had to be killed,” Karlstetter said. “The Cologne Zoo managed to keep a small group for about 30 years until a fox killed a newborn in 2006, which set the rest of the group into panic, resulting in fatal injuries of most [of the] animals. The last male died in 2009.”
The greatest hope for the saiga population are the conservation efforts made by governments and conservation organizations that emphasize tighter law enforcement and legislation against poaching, research into the saiga species’ survival, satellite tracking of remaining animals, community awareness, and the establishment of protective areas.
“The illegal saiga horn trade requires cooperation and collaboration across borders and institutions to be dealt with adequately,” Karlstetter said.
Fauna & Flora International works closely with the Kazakh government and the Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity of Kazakhstan to conduct research about the animal, strengthen state agencies that aid in the species’ survival and spread awareness to rural communities. And Karlstetter hopes that enough people will care about the hump-nosed species’ survival to aid in the protection effort meant to restore its population.
“While law enforcement will most certainly continue to play a crucial role for the conservation of the species for a long time to come, I yet hope that future generations with an ever growing access to information will make informed decisions and will value the saiga more alive than dead,” she said.