The Saiga antelope population in Kazakhstan has more than doubled since 2019, the authorities of this steppe country in Central Asia announced on May 28, 2021, reassuring news of this emblematic species in critical danger of extinction.
The first aerial study conducted in two years found that the population of saigas, animals recognizable by their long rounded snout resembling a small hobos, had grown from 330,000 to 842,000 individuals. The Kazakh Ministry of Ecology, which unveiled the good news, welcomed this demographic boom, which it described as “an indicator of the effectiveness of measures to protect the population and anti-poachingKazakhstan, five times the size of France and inhabited by 18 million people, is home to the vast majority of animals of this species with huge migrations, which can gather in herds in tens of thousands of heads in winter. Mongolia and the Russian Republic of Kalmykia, which borders Kazakhstan, are home to small colonies.
Between poaching and disease
Saiga has made great progress. In 2015, about 200,000 of these animals were killed by nasal bacteria developing due to unusually hot and humid temperatures, posing a serious threat to the survival of the species. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), whose “red list” is a scientific reference for endangered species, classifies saigas as five critically endangered species of antelope. The main danger to the animal, poaching that exploded after the collapse of the USSR, of which Kazakhstan was a part. In Soviet times, the saiga enjoyed increased protection. By 1950, hunting was banned, and then very strict quotas were imposed, and the population reached two million individuals. For a long time, the new Kazakh authorities did not have the resources or the will to fight this poaching, which led to lucrative traffic to neighboring China where male saig horns are used in traditional medicine. However, they committed themselves to action, especially after the death in 2019 of two gamekeepers, including one violently beaten by poachers, which moved the country.
Antelope saiga on a meadow near Almaty, Kazakhstan. Credits: AFP / Archive – Abduaziz MADYAROV
The work that needs to be done in this area is still huge. In April 2021, Kazakh police announced that they had arrested two men responsible for poaching more than 800 saiga horns in less than a year, totaling several million euros. During a trip to the steppes of northwestern Kazakhstan in May, during the calving season, experts told AFP that anti-poaching measures were successful. Albert Salemgareïev, of the Kazakhstan Biodiversity Conservation Association, provides “positive dynamics“is at work:”Not only is the number of saigas increasing, but the number of males is also increasing relative to the number of females.So the ratio of men to women went from one to 17 five years ago to one at eight, he said.
Saiga antelope on a meadow near Almaty, Kazakhstan. Credits: AFP / Archive – Abduaziz MADYAROV
Habitat loss associated with agricultural expansion, climate change with harsh winters and dry summers can also harm this fragile species, which has also been decimated on several occasions by pasteurellosis epizootics. In 1988, 434,000 animals died, and in 1984, 250,000 animals died from the disease. In mid-May, the Ministry of Ecology announced that during the calving season, lightning killed 350 antelopes.