The word ‘antelope’ typically conjures up visions of Africa; a foot race between cheetah and gazelle, impalas alert for a leopard lying in ambush; herds of wildebeest streaming across the plain. But that circle of life is not confined to a single continent. Though not a true antelope, the North American pronghorn fills a similar ecological niche to its Old World counterparts. And the vast steppes of Eurasia – stretching from Hungary to northeast China – were once carpeted with uncountable numbers of saiga antelope.

Regrettably, such spectacular sights are a thing of the past. Today, this enigmatic ungulate with the extraordinary nose is largely confined to a single country. Kazakhstan is estimated to harbour well over 90% of the global saiga population, with Russia, Mongolia and Uzbekistan accounting for the rest.

The case history of this critically endangered antelope is characterised by a series of setbacks and comebacks, during which populations have yo-yoed wildly, but the general trajectory has been inexorably downward.

CORNU ACOPIA

Poaching on an industrial scale – particularly for the horns of the male, which are coveted by traditional medicine practitioners – has contributed significantly to the saiga’s dramatic decline, but it is by no means the only factor. Habitat loss and increasingly restricted access to historical migration routes have also taken their toll.

Demand for the horns of the male saiga poses a serious threat to the survival of the species. Credit: rostovdriver/AdobeStock

As if that wasn’t enough, the saiga is also susceptible to devastating disease outbreaks. In 2015, a mystery bacterium caused a catastrophic collapse in numbers that saw 200,000 antelope wiped out virtually overnight and reduced the global population to its lowest point in well over a decade.

Since that numerical nadir, the last few episodes in the ongoing saiga soap opera have been relatively uplifting. In June 2019, Fauna & Flora International (FFI) was able to report that the Kazakhstan population had more than doubled within the space of two years. This welcome news was followed some 12 months later by the revelation that the country’s smallest and most threatened saiga population in the Ustyurt Plateau had experienced its largest mass calving in recent years.

And we have recently heard that the latest aerial census has recorded a veritable population boom, with an estimated 842,000 saiga now present in Kazakhstan, over half a million higher than the number recorded in 2019 (last year’s survey was cancelled due to the constraints imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic).

"The recent survey results indicate that the saiga populations are recovering with remarkable speed...The success of the initiative is promising and inspiring, yet we should remember that, as a species, the saiga is still in great need of protection measures."
Dr Sergey Sklyarenko Science Director, Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity of Kazakhstan

STEPPE IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION

For a species that has seemed perpetually condemned to taking one step forward and two steps back, this is something of a giant leap. A plentiful supply of food has boosted the survival rates of saiga and their offspring, but among the many factors contributing to these encouraging signs of recovery there is little doubt that the anti-poaching efforts and wider conservation initiatives of FFI and our partners in the Altyn Dala Conservation Initiative are having a positive impact. The Kazakh government, in particular, deserves great credit for its commitment to saiga conservation, including its ongoing support for the annual aerial surveys.

ACBK rangers weighing a newborn saiga calf on the Ustyurt Plateau, Kazakhstan. Credit: Bakhtiyar Taikenov/ACBK

Spearheaded by our in-country partner, the Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity of Kazakhstan (ACBK), working in partnership with the Kazakh government’s Committee for Forestry and Wildlife, and with support from FFI, Frankfurt Zoological Society and RSPB, this coalition aims to protect and restore Kazakhstan’s steppe, semi-desert and desert ecosystems and the species they harbour, including the critically endangered saiga.

The latest dramatic turnaround in the saiga’s fortunes is wonderful news for the species and for the country, which is the last significant stronghold of this beleaguered antelope. Almost two decades after the Kazakhstan population hit an all-time low of just 21,000 individuals, numbers are now higher than at any time in the past 30 years.

“The recent survey results indicate that the saiga populations are recovering with remarkable speed,” said Dr Sergey Sklyarenko, ACBK’s Science Director and Head of the Centre for Conservation Biology. “This has become possible thanks to the help of the government of Kazakhstan, which enabled direct protection of the saiga throughout the country by Okhotzooprom ranger teams. Governmental efforts are supported by non-governmental national and international partners focusing on wide range of saiga studies, such as migration, promotion of public awareness and improvement of law enforcement. The success of the initiative is promising and inspiring, yet we should remember that, as a species, the saiga is still in great need of protection measures.”

The ups and downs of this species are the stuff of legend, and past experience has taught us that hard-won victories for conservation can be undone in the blink of an eye. Eternal vigilance is the name of the game, but in the meantime it’s worth taking a moment to savour the sweet smell of saiga success.