The Saiga Antelope is a symbol of the Eurasian steppe for the nomadic people it shares its habitat with, and has been an important source of food and inspiration for centuries. Once numbering in the millions, the saiga population crashed by 95% in fifteen years, the fastest decline ever recorded for a mammal species.
Saiga antelope are currently facing a serious threat of extinction via poaching, and by consumer demand, which are the same as the demands for rhino horn.
The saiga is a small antelope, standing about 27” tall.
Saigas have a distinctive appearance, with an unusual swollen nose that filters out airborne dust during the dry summer, and warms cold air before it enters the lungs during the winter.
Only male saigas have the much-desired, long, translucent amber horns.
This species is found in isolated populations in Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Russia, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
Despite once numbering over one million in the mid-1970s, intense hunting pressure has reduced the global population to some 50,000 individuals.1 The saiga is listed as ‘Critically Endangered’ on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
Only saiga males bear the precious horn, and as a result poachers aim to kill males. The number of adult males dropped dramatically. During the rut there were not enough males to mate with all the females, which led to a reproductive collapse. Recently however, some years have shown population growth and recovery, providing hope for the future.2
2 Saiga Conservation Alliance
Threats to the Saiga
The fate of the saiga has been closely tied to the economic downfall of the USSR. The breakdown of the Soviet Union in 1991 resulted in the collapse of rural economies, unemployment and poverty. Saiga poaching provided an (illegal) alternative source of income and food. The border with China reopened in the late 1980s and demand for their horn for use in traditional medicine is high.
Within Uzbekistan there is a market for saiga meat. The meat is viewed and valued as “natural” or “organic/healthy” meat as an alternative to chicken, beef, and fish. This trend is seen in the main cities of Uzbekistan where there is a more affluent class of people. Some locals do believe it is dishonorable to kill and hunt saiga, despite its touted medicinal values.
How GCF is Helping the Saiga
Global Conservation Force is working with the Saiga Conservation Alliance to help protect the saiga antelope in the Stepnoi Reserve in Kalmykia, Russia, and the Saigachy Reserve in Karakalpakstan, Uzbekistan. The reserve is 7,000 square kilometers with primarily flat land and short shrubs. This habitat is home to many unique species, including the migratory saiga antelope. There is currently a ranger team in place to oversee the animals, however their reach is somewhat limited due to fuel budgets.
The current strategic plan for reduction of poaching is to support the local communities with education outreach projects, and the rangers protecting the saiga antelope with added funds to the emergency fuel budget. Global Conservation Force’s aims to reduce demand by assisting with the expansion of education outreach in the saiga range countries, and abroad, and pursuing wildlife trafficking issues where rhino horn trade, ivory, and saiga horn trade overlap.