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The Spirit of the Steppes: Saving Central Asia’s saiga

  • The Critically Endangered saiga (Saiga tatarica) once numbered in the millions. This large antelope was perhaps best known for making one of the last of the world’s remaining great mammal migrations — a trek sweeping twice per year across the steppes of Central Asia.
  • Saiga populations declined more than 95 percent by 2004, according to the IUCN. Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan banned hunting in the 1990s, but the horns of male saiga are highly valued in traditional Chinese medicine, and illegal trafficking is a major threat; if not curtailed the trade could doom the species.
  • In the 21st century, international NGOs and regional organizations such as the Saiga Conservation Alliance (SCA) and Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity of Kazakhstan (ACBK) formed partnerships with Central Asian nations to better conserve the species. And their work was paying off, until 2015.
  • That’s when disease killed over 200,000 adult saiga of the Betpak Dala population in Central Kazakhstan. At the end of 2016, the Mongolian herd was hit hard by a new viral infection, with 4,000 saiga carcasses buried so far. But the saiga is reproductively resilient, and could be saved, if the species receives sufficient attention, say conservationists.
The Critically Endangered saiga is targeted by traffickers for its horns and hunted for its meat. This steppe antelope also faces threats from disease, habitat degradation, and climate change which is causing seasonal water sources to dry up earlier, forcing the species to shift northward. Photo by Andrey Gilev, Karina Karenina, courtesy of the Saiga Resource Centre

The beauty of the saiga belies first impressions. It may be hard to look beyond the big nose — a bulbous schnozz that looks like a chunk of an elephant’s trunk. And those spindly legs could make anyone wonder how this sturdy antelope can run so fast and far.

Yet, this awkward looking beast is beautiful in its own right; perfectly designed for its life on the arid, windswept steppes of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Mongolia and the far reaches of southern Russia.

In that harsh unforgiving climate, the saiga’s prodigious nose can filter out clouds of fine dry dust rising in summer, or it can warm sub-zero air to keep from freezing the lungs during winter. And those legs, built for speed and endurance, are the best defense in a landscape largely devoid of cover and requiring long annual treks for survival.

Unfortunately for the Critically Endangered saiga, the species can’t outrun the rapidly and drastically changing Asian ecology or national economies now threatening its survival. Although the saiga’s prehistoric past is preserved in ancient cave paintings, conservationists worry that the future of this “spirit of the steppe” may be imperiled.

Saving the saiga will also conserve the steppes. As the saiga graze and follow their seasonal routes, they help maintain healthy forage that supports other endangered wildlife such as the Sociable Lapwing (Vanellus gregarius), one of the most threatened birds on the Eurasian steppes, with breeding grounds in Kazakhstan. Good grazing also benefits the local communities that have herdstock. Photo by Valeri Maleev from the Russian, pre-caspian population. Courtesy of the Saiga Resource Centre

Resilient traveler of the arid plain

Aside from its extraordinary looks, the saiga (Saiga tatarica) is known for making one of the last of the world’s remaining great mammal migrations. Each spring and autumn, the antelope scattered across the vast steppe, merge into one massive cinnamon-hued herd, surging across a landscape the species has inhabited since the ice age.

Once counted in the millions, saiga populations declined more than 95 percent by 2004, prompting a Critically Endangered species listing by the IUCN. One of the biggest threats: the critically endangered antelope is targeted by poachers for its horns and hunted for its meat. The saiga is also challenged by extreme drought — increasingly common as climate change escalates — and by competition for grasslands from domestic grazing stock, along with land use shifts favoring fossil fuel production.

Already in jeopardy, an unexpected blow to the saiga came in 2015 when a sudden sickness killed nearly two-thirds of the world’s population in a single month, with numbers plummeting to a mere 31,300 saiga in Kazakhstan and about 100,000 worldwide.

The species was just beginning to recover — with its population topping 100,000 adult animals dispersed in four nations as of June 2016 — when, in December 2016, disease struck again. This time, a virus that typically infects domestic goats and sheep, called peste des petits ruminants, began taking saiga lives in Mongolian herds. Winter snows and remote habitat may currently conceal the full impact of this new epidemic, said

Enkhtuvshin Shiilegdamba, a wildlife veterinarian in Mongolia with the Wildlife Conservation Society, in a February 2017 New York Times article.

“The saiga are built for catastrophe and bounce back,” notes E.J. Milner-Gulland, a zoologist the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, who has been fascinated by these large herbivores since she first travelled to Russia as a doctoral student.

A 2-day old saiga. Photo by Kate Surzhok, courtesy of the Saiga Resource Centre.

One way in which the steppe antelope has adapted to the extreme climate in which it lives is to evolve as one of the most fecund ungulates on the planet, says Milner-Gulland. Females can live and reproduce for about 12 years, giving birth by their first year, and routinely twinning from the second year onward.

That reproductive evolutionary strategy doesn’t make existence on the steppe any less precarious for individual animals, though. When the saiga gather in huge herds, their sheer numbers can help deter predators ranging from golden eagles, to grey wolves and red foxes. But calving among so many big grazing animals, crammed together, has its own risks, which are compounded by highly erratic weather — with the herd buffeted by high winds one minute, then pelted by hailstones the next. All this can cause saiga stress levels to spike, says Milner-Gulland.

So, life for the steppe antelope remains a harsh dance, in which great susceptibility to rapidly shifting conditions is balanced by the species’ high reproductive resilience. If not harmed by humans, saiga populations will naturally rise — and crash — then rebound.

Conserving the herds

One of the most at-risk saiga populations lives on the Ustyurt Plateau, a desert known for its extreme daily temperature shifts and scant rainfall, located between Central Asia’s Caspian and Aral Seas.

This vast area covers roughly 200,000 square kilometers (about 77,000 square miles) and is shared by the countries of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Most saiga there migrate seasonally back and forth across national borders, spending summer in Kazakhstan, then heading south to Uzbekistan when winter snows cover forage in the north.

Saiga distribution in Central Asia, excluding the Mongolian herds. Map courtesy of Steffen Zuther

Only about 2,000 animals remain in this trans-boundary herd today, down from 200,000 less then two decades ago. These huge declines occurred despite many years of conservation action by the governments of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, added to by an array of NGO partners.

Uzbekistan has banned the hunting of saiga since 1991, and established the one-million hectare (3,861 square mile) Saigachy Reserve, in part, to protect Saiga breeding grounds. Kazakhstan banned hunting by 1998.

But it wasn’t enough. The Ustyurt population kept decreasing, even as conservation for the other populations began to gain momentum, in particular for the Betpak-Dala herd.

Enter the SCA and ADCI

In 2006, a coalition of Asian governments, along with NGOs such as the Saiga Conservation Alliance (SCA), signed the Convention on Migratory Species’ Memorandum of Understanding to protect saiga.

The resilience of the species is rooted in their reproductive capability, says Milner-Gulland. Photo by Andrey Gilev, Karina Karenina, courtesy of the Saiga Resource Centre

By 2010, all five saiga range states (Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Mongolia, and the Russian Federation) were taking steps to fulfill a conservation action plan. That same year, the Saiga Conservation Alliance became a formal non-profit organization, rather than a loose network of groups. SCA’s goal was to link up conservationists, researchers, NGOs and governments in all the range states, including Mongolia, and in saiga consumer states in China.

“We try to bring everyone together,” says SCA chair Milner-Gulland, who first learned about saiga during her graduate studies on the illegal ivory and rhino horn trade. In Traditional Chinese Medicines saiga horn has long been used in similar ways to rhino horn, especially when the antelope were more plentiful.

Since 2005, the Altyn Dala Conservation Initiative (ADCI) has worked to conserve the Betpak-Dala saiga population. The ADCI partnership includes the Kazakh Committee of Forestry and Wildlife, the Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity of Kazakhstan (ACBK), Fauna & Flora International, the Frankfurt Zoological Society, and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. While the ADCI didn’t single out the saiga for conservation, participants understood that anything that helped the antelope would also likely improve the steppe ecology for other plants and animals.

2011 Whitley award winner Elena Bykova, with her students in Uzbekistan. Community outreach is an important part of saiga conservation. Photo by Alexander Esipov, courtesy of the Saiga Resource Centre

Several years later, the SCA joined other NGOs and local partners to launch a long-term project to better define the boundaries of the Saigachy Reserve, while also improving wildlife corridors for saiga travel between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Within eight years, in 2015, the Saigachy Reserve was re-designated, becoming the largest protected area in Uzbekistan, covering 7,000 square kilometers (2,700 square miles), and providing safer passage to calving and mating places.

Another landscape-scale effort, the Ustyurt Landscape Conservation Initiative, was funded by USAID from 2009 to 2014. Projects conducted in partnership with ACBK and Fauna & Flora International include gaining a better understanding of the region’s biodiversity; establishing school eco-clubs for young people; and boosting wildlife law enforcement. Anti-trafficking efforts were ramped up with the addition of four “sniffer dogs” that worked the Kazakhstan border to help detect illegal saiga horn trafficking. In 2007, Saiga Day was established in Uzbekistan and then became an international festival, promoting conservation in communities across the saiga’s entire range.

Sudden die-off, sudden setback

Just when it looked as though all these conservation efforts were starting to pay off, the die-off hit. It was May 2015 and the peak of calving season. In less than a month, the grasslands were dotted with more than 200,000 dead adult saiga. The Betpak-Dala herd of central Kazakhstan was almost wiped out. The count of the dead steppe antelope would eventually top more than 200,000 animals.

E.J. Milner-Gulland, chair of the Saiga Conservation Alliance, holding a saiga calf. With a passion for all things Russian, her graduate studies on the illegal trade in rhino horn gave her an opportunity to work with saiga. In traditional Chinese medicine saiga horn is often used alongside rhino horn. Courtesy of the Saiga Resource Centre

“It was a tragedy,” recalls Milner-Gulland. “It had just got to the point when colleagues doing the aerial surveys were saying: ‘This really looks like the way it was before all the poaching.’”

It wasn’t the first big die-off the ungulates suffered, however. Mass mortality events were recorded in the same population in 1981 and 1988, and die-offs occurred in other herds too. Yet the saiga have always come back.

Although bacteria caused the 2015 die-off, researchers are still sorting out why the antelopes were so susceptible. The infection, caused by Pasteurella, is considered to be opportunistic — something else must have first weakened the saigas’ immune systems in order to allow this run-of-the-mill bacteria to suddenly become a virulent killer.

“With so few antelope left, we need to understand exactly what happened,” says ADCI international coordinator Steffen Zuther at ACBK. “We also need to focus on guaranteeing viable population sizes that could cope with [future] big catastrophes.”

The concerns are slightly different — but no less dire — for the Mongolian herds, a unique subspecies (Saiga tatarica mongolica), that is succumbing to a virus spread from infected domestic sheep and goats. The outbreak of “goat plague” was previously recorded in areas where the saiga were later stricken, according to reports from the World Wildlife Fund in Mongolia. Although vaccines against the virus have been deployed for domestic herds, most recent reports say that 4,000 saiga carcasses have been buried so far. Worse, experts have found that other wild hoofstock are also infected, including ibex and Goitered gazelles.

Saiga horn trafficking

If those viable populations are ever to be nurtured back into existence and permanently maintained, the very serious challenges presented by rampant poaching must be met.

Male saiga possess ridged horns that fetch up to US $3,000 per kilogram and which are used in traditional Chinese medicine. It takes about three dead saiga to make a kilogram of the powdered horn.

Poachers who kill males for their horns do the species a double disservice: they skew the population ratios so that there are too few males to attract a harem of females, and often the surviving males are younger animals who are sometimes not experienced enough, or mature enough, to breed effectively.

Poaching is the biggest obstacle to saiga population recovery. The demand for saiga horn is worldwide, notes Elena Bykova, a mammalogist and the Saiga Conservation Alliance executive secretary. It’s not only the Chinese market that drives the demand, it’s also Singapore, Malaysia, and Hong Kong. Photo by Eva Klebelsberg/Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity of Kazakhstan, courtesy of the Saiga Resource Centre

The Kazakh government supports ranger services, notes ACBK’s Zuther. But, as with poaching hotspots in Africa, the high prices available for saiga horn attract organized crime, which is difficult to fight.

Also, the country is huge — close to three million square kilometers (1,052,085 square miles), roughly the size of Western Europe. Much saiga territory is rugged and nearly impossible to patrol, so the species cannot practically be protected across its entire range — or at least not at any reasonable price.

Zuther also sees a bigger problem: “Saiga horn is never discussed at big international forums about wildlife crime,” he explains. “Everybody talks about rhinos and elephants. That’s important, but there’s something beyond that: saiga. They need to be part of the conversation.”

Big oil, big problems

While poaching is rooted in poor economies, saiga also paradoxically suffer due to Kazakhstan’s oil boom. Already the biggest former Soviet oil producer after Russia, last summer the Kazakh government made a $36.8 billion dollar deal with investors to boost production at the country’s Tengiz field on the northeast edge of the Caspian Sea.

Those plans have resulted in a building boom in gas pipelines, railroads and roads, all of which hinder herd movement. The saiga can run up to 80 kilometers per hour, but they cannot leap across pipeline construction or safely navigate the railways and roads of the new transportation infrastructure.

Other human obstructions have impeded the saiga. In 2012, barbed wire went up along the Kazakh-Uzbek border, in part to help prevent drug smuggling, but the fence also blocked much of the saiga migration route. Animals stalled at the fence became easy targets for poachers. The efforts of conservation organizations has since resulted in the government beginning to modify fence sections so the saiga can get through.

Fossil fuel production presents still another major long-term challenge for the saiga: climate change. “With higher temperatures, the quality of the grass is affected and the temporary watering holes dry up earlier in the season,” explains Elena Bykova, executive secretary of the Saiga Conservation Alliance and a leader for saiga protection in her native country of Uzbekistan. Slowly, the saiga herds are moving their calving grounds to the north.

More than 60 percent of the world’s saiga population died in central Kazakhstan in May 2015, just after the peak of calving season. Mostly female and babies were lost. Although the antelope died from an overwhelming bacterial infection, researchers are still seeking the underlying cause. Photo by Sergei Khomenko, FAO. Courtesy of the Saiga Resource Centre.

Climate change may even have triggered the 2015 die-off, suggests Bykova. Higher temperatures and humidity could have created optimal conditions for growth of the Pasteurella bacteria, overwhelming the saiga at a time when the herds were already stressed from calving. Another possibility: the world’s insidious global warming trend could have weakened the species’ vaunted reproductive resilience.

Another unexpected threat has come due to the shrinking of the Aral Sea. This vast inland water body, located in the pre-Caspian lowlands of Eurasia, started fading away in the mid-20th century — mostly due to the siphoning off of Aral Sea freshwater feeder streams to irrigate Uzbekistan’s massive cotton crop.

Over time, the inland sea receded, leaving behind a desert that degrades saiga habitat, explains Bykova. The sea’s loss has helped raise land and air temperatures, adding dust and air pollution. Also, fishermen who lived near the now vanished sea, are without livelihood, and so look to saiga poaching as a new means of income.

“There needs to be a way that saiga can be helped to adapt to climate change,” says Milner-Gulland. “All they need is space, really. They can’t be boxed in. That’s what makes them such wonderful creatures.”

The saiga are an important cultural icon and flagship species of the steppes. “Once you see them, you would love them and do everything possible to save the species,” says Steffen Zuther, international coordinator for the ADCI. He first encountered the steppe antelope when he moved to Kazakhstan 10 years ago. Photo by Pavel Sorokin, courtesy of the Saiga Resource Centre

The long view

If there’s a silver lining to the die-offs, the tragic disease outbreaks may have shocked the world into recognizing the precarious condition of these awkward looking antelope of the steppes.

“They are this amazing adaptive species that have survived [past] terrible climate catastrophes, so now it is the responsibility of the people who have impacted the saiga to help them,” says Bykova. She was a 2011 Whitley Award winner, honored for her rallying of diverse communities (women’s groups, schools, government officials, and even ex-hunters) to saiga conservation.

Looking ahead, Bykova enumerates the next key steps for saiga conservation: she points to the importance of sharing scientific data as well as best conservation practices between nations, and of building stronger partnerships between NGOs, governments and the industries that impact saiga habitat.

Above all, she says, the trafficking of saiga horn must be stopped.

Can the saiga recover? The new viral epidemic may take a huge toll on the Mongolian population, which hovered around 10,000 animals before the outbreak. However, one year after the mass die-off of 2015, calving appears to be normal again, reports Milner-Gulland. “I don’t think we should give up on them,” she says.

Review questions for educators

These questions can help provide a framework for exploring tropics presented in this story.

  • What is the saiga?
  • Where do saiga live?
  • What is the saiga’s habitat?
  • What makes the saiga unusual?
  • Why is the saiga endangered?
  • How are conservationists working to protect the saiga?
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