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.
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. © 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 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).