Notes from the field: Saving saiga antelopes in the Uzbek Ustyurt Plateau

Flying into Nukus, Uzbekistan, it is striking how the huge expanse of endless desert plains suddenly changes into irrigated fields, growing quickly into an ever denser carpet of green contrasting the grey and barren surrounding. Out of Nukus, the Ustyurt Plateau rises suddenly, clearly demarcated by its steep escarpments, which reach up to 150m in height – the locally called chink.

I’m on my way to visit the field site of a project which began in 2004. The initiative, a collaboration between the National Academy of Science and FFI, aims to raise the awareness of and actively involve local communities in conserving the saiga antelope on the Uzbek Ustyurt Plateau.

Little is known about resident populations of saiga in the country. It is assumed that the antelope has become a mainly seasonal visitor to Uzbekistan, migrating south from Kazakhstan in the winter in search for food and to bear young.

The designation of a one million hectare protected area in 1991 acknowledged the importance of the saiga breeding grounds on the Ustyurt. However, the Saigachy Zakaznik (named after the animal it is supposed to conserve) never got further than being a ‘paper park’, with no staff or funding.

During my trip I met many local people to find out more about the current situation of our project. Our partner has successfully established an informal network of local individuals, who now regularly provide them with invaluable information on saiga sightings, movements and even numbers being poached.

In addition, they have encouraged many local people to become ‘Saiga Friends’ (a pledge to actively support our work by providing help wherever needed). I was lucky enough to attend the award ceremony of a school children’s artwork competition on the environment which was organized by the Saiga Conservation Alliance – and I thoroughly enjoyed attending the final show, including songs, poems, dances and dramas, many of which focused in particular on the saiga.

Ultimately, one aspect of our community work is to establish a system of local rangers who are committed to and involved in saiga protection. This is planned to complement our efforts to reassign and expand the Saigachy Zakaznik and to provide support to state ranger patrols.

The conservation of the saiga on the Uzbek Ustyurt has to compete with a series of other pressing needs of the area. But new initiatives are on their way to expand the project to Kazakhstan in an effort to focus on the conservation of the wider Ustyurt landscape, with the saiga being a keystone species of the ecosystem and a symbol of a healthy and intact environment.