A new population census from Kazakhstan has revealed an increase in saiga antelope numbers from 152,600 to 334,400 within just two years, offering a glimmer of hope for a critically endangered species that has been in freefall for decades.

The weird and wonderful saiga – distinguished by its large, bulbous nose – once roamed the steppes of Central Asia in vast nomadic herds, millions strong, a spectacle said to have rivalled the modern-day wildebeest migration in East Africa.

It is superbly adapted to the harsh conditions of the remote wilderness areas that it favours, but has no defence against the threats posed by humans. In the 19th century, it was almost annihilated by the kind of unbridled hunting spree that drove the bison to virtual extinction in North America.

Legal protection ensured its survival, but the respite was only temporary, and a poaching free-for-all triggered by the break-up of the former Soviet Union in 1991 caused a near-catastrophic fall in numbers, leading to an unprecedented loss of more than 95% of the global population in the following decade – one of the fastest recorded declines for a mammal.

In recent years, the saiga population has also been decimated by a number of mass die-off events resulting in the loss of hundreds of thousands of antelopes, with disastrous consequences for a species already pushed to the brink by hunting and habitat loss.

A healthy herd of saiga. Credit: Victor Tyakht/Bigstock
A healthy herd of saiga. Credit: Victor Tyakht/Bigstock

The saiga’s natural resilience, buoyed by a suite of well-directed conservation measures, has led to a series of mini-recoveries, but the species is still in grave danger, with some groups struggling for survival.

Three of the world’s five remaining populations of saiga are found in Kazakhstan – the others are in Russia and Mongolia.

Fauna & Flora International (FFI) is a partner in the Altyn Dala Conservation Initiative, which aims to protect and restore Kazakhstan’s steppe, semi-desert and desert ecosystems and the species they harbour, including the critically endangered saiga. This broad coalition includes the Association for the Conservation of the Biodiversity of Kazakhstan (ACBK), the Committee of Forestry and Wildlife of the Ministry of Agriculture of Kazakhstan, Frankfurt Zoological Society and RSPB.

With support from the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the Species Fund and Restore Our Planet, FFI is focusing its conservation efforts on the smallest, remotest – and most threatened – of the country’s three saiga populations, on the Ustyurt Plateau. This vast transboundary desert – shared with Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan – covers an area of roughly 200,000 square kilometres.

Visitors contemplating the sheer immensity of the Ustyurt Plateau: Credit Alessandro Mastroviti
Visitors contemplating the sheer immensity of the Ustyurt Plateau: Credit Alessandro Mastroviti

The Ustyurt saiga population is a prime target for poachers, particularly the male antelopes, whose horns are among the myriad animal parts hoovered up in industrial quantities for use in traditional Asian medicine.

Working with ACBK and the Kazakhstan government, FFI is monitoring the distribution and movement of saiga, and has supported the establishment and training of a new ranger team, and the deployment of sniffer dogs, to help deter and foil illegal trade in saiga horn within Kazakhstan and across the border, as well as raising awareness of the antelope’s importance within communities through educational activities and the promotion of an annual ‘saiga day’.

Those efforts are now being rewarded. The use of satellite collaring and telemetry to monitor saiga movements has not only helped combat the poaching threat, but also enabled rangers to pinpoint the antelopes’ calving grounds for the first time in many years.

Aerial surveys that ACBK conducted in the course of the national saiga census revealed dramatic increases across all three Kazakhstan sites, but the Ustyurt Plateau has enjoyed a particularly strong resurgence; numbers have risen to 5,900, an increase of almost 130% since 2017.

ACBK rangers pictured during the 2019 aerial survey. Credit: Albert Salemgareyev/ACBK
ACBK rangers pictured during the 2019 aerial survey. Credit: Albert Salemgareyev/ACBK

Although relatively small, this population has a disproportionately significant role to play in the long-term survival of the saiga. Such metapopulations, as they are known in the trade, have a wider value that transcends their actual size, particularly in the context of the unpredictable – and, to date, unpreventable – mass-mortality events that pose an ever-present threat to the species as a whole.

In May 2015, the largest saiga population in Kazakhstan – and the world – suffered a devastating mass die-off, precipitated by an outbreak of haemorrhagic septicaemia, which wiped out an estimated 70% of the global adult saiga population in less than a month.

In the context of such cataclysmic events, which can virtually obliterate an entire subpopulation in one fell swoop, the Ustyurt Plateau saiga subset assumes even greater importance.

The latest survey results are a real shot in the arm for saiga conservation, but everyone involved is painfully aware that the next setback could be just around the corner. Eternal vigilance is the name of the game, a point emphasised by Bakhtiyar Taikenov, head of the Ustyurt ranger team: “This is fantastic news, especially for the Ustyurt population, which many in Kazakhstan had already given up. When we all work together with the right approach, we can achieve a lot. But there are still various threats and disaster can strike at any time, so we have to be prepared. The more we can do about poaching and other threats to saiga, the better the chances of population recovery in the event of another natural disaster.”