Decades of hard work on the part of national and international conservation partners including Fauna & Flora have reaped rich rewards for the saiga, one of the world’s most charismatic and – until recently – most endangered antelopes.
The IUCN Red List status of this timeless talisman of the Central Asian steppes has been changed from Critically Endangered to Near Threatened. The dramatic downlisting reflects a remarkable rebound in saiga numbers, particularly its Kazakhstan stronghold, where populations have bounced back from a perilously low 48,000 individuals in 2005 to a new high of over 1.9 million.
A male saiga leaps free after being captured for research purposes by Fauna & Flora's partner ACBK.
How was the saiga saved from extinction?
The saiga’s journey from the brink of extinction to its current position of relative security has been a rollercoaster ride characterised by a series of sudden setbacks, rapid recovery and regular relapses. After many false dawns, the most recent resurgence has been deemed sufficiently robust to warrant a change of conservation status.
The race to save the saiga has been a genuinely collaborative effort on the part of the Kazakh and other range state governments, research organisations, and national and international NGOs. This includes the Altyn Dala Conservation Initiative, which comprises the Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity of Kazakhstan (ACBK), the Government of Kazakhstan, Fauna & Flora, Frankfurt Zoological Society and RSPB.
The UN Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals has also played a pivotal role in bringing together governments and civil society organisations across the saiga’s range, and in securing agreement on and implementation of an international work programme. This provided a framework for the conservation and sustainable use of the species throughout its migratory range in coordination with CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora).
Anti-poaching and law enforcement measures, formal protection of key saiga habitat, population monitoring, local community engagement and the formation of community-led ranger teams have all contributed to the antelope’s recovery.
David Gill, Fauna & Flora’s Director of Operations for Eurasia, expressed his delight at the news: “The improvement in conservation status for the saiga is truly a landmark moment for the species, and represents an incredible team effort and investment from the national governments and NGO partners working across the range. At Fauna & Flora we’re humbled and proud to have been right behind the efforts of our local partners in Kazakhstan who have been best placed to lead this incredible recovery. Over the last 15 years, we’ve been through many ups and downs together for the species, but the latest news really is a monumental moment. Knowing how vulnerable the species can be to threats, it’s important now that we maintain this momentum, and ensure that the saiga continues to be a major conservation success story for the coming decades.”
Those sentiments were echoed by Vera Veronova, Executive Director of ACBK, Fauna & Flora’s long-standing partner in Kazakhstan: “This is a significant milestone for the saiga antelope conservation community and illustrates how conservation can be effective if all parties collaborate with a strong mission and appropriate resourcing. We need to ensure that conservation action continues in Kazakhstan and neighbouring countries more broadly, to ensure the long-term recovery of saiga antelope in all range states.”
A newborn saiga calf lies motionless on the Ustyurt Plateau.
Is the saiga still in danger?
Full recovery is contingent on the saiga re-establishing its central role in the Central Asia steppe ecosystem throughout its entire range. The threats posed by poaching, illegal trade, disease, climate change, disturbance and infrastructure development represent a clear and present danger to a species that has repeatedly suffered precipitous declines through its turbulent history. Its revised status hints at the potential for rapid deterioration in the absence of ongoing conservation attention, and the saiga remains in need of unwavering support at local, national and international level.
For our part, Fauna & Flora remains committed to working with our in-country partners to secure the future of one of the world’s most unusual ungulates, but for now let’s toast the success of collaborative conservation initiatives that have significantly improved the long-term survival prospects of the saiga antelope.
Fauna & Flora’s own long-term support for saiga conservation in Kazakhstan has been underpinned by crucial funding from a range of donors including US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) International Affairs, the UK government’s Darwin Initiative and IWT Challenge Fund, the Lucille Foundation, Arcadia and the Disney Conservation Fund.
Help us cement our saiga success
To secure the saiga’s long-term recovery, we need to ensure support for the species across its entire range.