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The Species and its Habitat
The Saiga Saiga tatarica is a small antelope that once roamed in herds of up to 100,000 strong across the plains of Central Asia and Russia, migrating over vast distances. With a 95% reduction in population over the last 20 years, the Saiga has experienced one of the fastest declines recorded for mammals in recent decades. With only 5 sub-populations left worldwide the Saiga became listed by International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as critically endangered.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the countries’ orientation towards market economies, previous state nature protection regimes could no longer be afforded. The break down of the Soviet era’s comprehensive social welfare system and the withdrawal of subsidies gave rise to widespread poverty resulting in an increased and uncontrolled use of natural resources. The main threat to the Saiga is illegal hunting for horn and meat, the former being used in traditional Chinese medicine. As only males bear horns, poaching has resulted in heavily skewed sex ratios causing a significantly reduced reproduction rate.
Highly adapted to the harsh climate conditions of the semi-deserts, to unbearable heat in summer and severe cold in winter, the Saiga is regarded as a keystone species of the steppe ecosystem it inhabits. Their cyclic grazing of vast steppe regions maintains vegetation compositions and thus habitat conditions for a multitude of steppe breeding birds. Further, the antelope serves as an important prey base for several raptor species and there have been extensive declines in the number of wintering large predatory birds such as eagles and vultures, correlating to Saiga’s decline. Conserving the Saiga makes a significant contribution to the conservation of the wider steppe ecosystem and the many threatened species it supports.
The Ustyurt Plateau, a temperate desert approximately 200,000km2 in size, shared between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan is home to one of the last remaining Saiga populations. Estimated at about 9,000 individuals, the Ustyurt Saiga faces the highest risk of extinction and is in urgent need of conservation action.
Although protected under national and international laws and conventions, poaching is still the primary threat to the Ustyurt Saiga. The limited capacity of state agencies compromises the effective control of illegal hunting. Unemployment is high on the plateau and poverty is a major driver of poaching, with revenues from trade thought to provide a significant proportion of income to poor households.
The Saiga Antelope Project, Kazakhstan
With the support of Fauna & Flora International and funding from WildInvest the project is implemented by the Institute of Zoology, Academy of Science, and follows a multifaceted approach including research into Saiga population and migration on the Ustyurt Plateau, engaging local communities in Saiga monitoring and conservation, and redesignating the Saigachy Reserve.
Long-term investigations of Saiga population, migration routes and breeding grounds are crucial for informing sound conservation of the species. The Ustyurt Saiga is the least studied and understood population of all 5 remaining sub-populations and little is known about the ecological impact the current level of poaching is causing. Saiga population monitoring is conducted across the Ustyurt Plateau in two ways: through direct field observations during mass migration in winter and through the collection of data gathered by local community Saiga monitors throughout the year (see below). Data collected include Saiga distribution, numbers, herd size, sex and age ratio, migration routs, rut behavior, mortality and predation. All data are included in a database and used to analyze factors influencing migration and herd size pattern and for informing future conservation planning for the species.
Local communities express their strong concern for the fate of the Saiga, with their culture being densely interwoven with the natural environment and the Saiga being emblematic of the nomadic traditions of the Ustyurt Plateau. Communities on the Ustyurt have seen the numbers of Saiga declining significantly in recent years and have noticed a change in behavior in response to humans (becoming more wary and nervous). However, despite being aware of Saiga poaching within their communities, most people lack understanding of the severe impact this has had on the species and the dramatic collapse of its population size.
To address this, community meetings and regional workshops are held in main villages known to be local poaching hubs and district centers to initialize dialogue and continue discussions on Saiga issues and to provide updates on project progress. Public awareness and community engagement activities are effective methods for promoting Saiga conservation. The project’s ongoing day to day interactions and relationship-building with local people and state agencies is allowing for ever more effective Saiga awareness and conservation action to take place. The engagement of local people in the conservation process builds credible and trusting partnerships between local people, the Institute of Zoology and Fauna Flora International and is indispensible for creating local ownership of the project and securing long-term success.
Further, the project is promoting a redesignation of the Saigachy Reserve, a 1 mil hectare area on the Uzbek Ustyurt, established in 1991 for the main purpose of protecting Saiga breeding grounds and other key species (e.g. large birds of prey). Since it’s designation the park has been a mere ‘paper’ park – lacking proper demarcation and an operational team. Its functional operation is urgently needed particularly in the light of the increasing pressure from developing oil and gas sector industries on the Ustyurt.
With the generous support of WildInvest a crucial foundation was laid for a bigger program to develop. In 2009 and 2010 two larger initiatives were initiated, expanding conservation focus from Saiga to the entire Ustyurt steppe landscape. While maintaining a strategy on engaging local communities in conservation action and providing support to relevant state agencies, efforts have been extended on promoting transboundary cooperation between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, engaging the oil- and gas industries in conservation planning, developing alternative income opportunities for local people and on targeting illegal regional trade of Saiga products.
Project Leader: Elena Bykova
I was born in Uzbekistan and spent a lot of time travelling with my parents in deserts and wetlands. Both of them worked as geologists and visited different wild and remote places throughout the country. Living with them in field camps I became step by step interested in nature. In that time I was strongly interested in history and after graduation of secondary school it was very difficult for me to make a choice between biology and archaeology. However, my mama said it would be much better and useful if I would study alive nature instead of dead stones. This helped me to make my choice and I started to study in the Biology Department of Tumen State University (Western Siberia, Russia). Following my university graduation I spent one year working at the Russian Academy of Science’s Botanic Gardens in Moscow, before returning to Uzbekistan where I gained a position at the Institute of Zoology, Academy of Sciences, Tashkent. My research focused on monitoring methodologies and the use of small mammals as indicator species.
The funny looking antelope is a relict of the Ice Age. As one of the last remaining wild herbivores of the vast grass lands of Eurasia, the Saiga plays a distinctive role in maintaining the steppe habitat conditions for a range of other threatened species. Further, the Saiga is an important part of the cultural heritage of nomadic people who historically shared the same lands for thousands of years. Certainly, the Saiga’s fate could not keep me indifferent. Since 2004 my husband, Alexander Esipov, working with me at the Institute of Zoology, have cooperated very closely with FFI for Saiga conservation in Uzbekistan. Together with colleagues from the Imperial College of London the Saiga Conservation Alliance (SCA) was founded in 2006, for which I am working as secretary, since then receiving strong support from the Wildlife Conservation Network. The SCA is an international organization that combines efforts of enthusiastic people in the whole world to contribute to the recovery of the Saiga in its status as keystone species of the steppe ecosystem. I really believe that we can save the Saiga. I would be happy if new people join us for this noble aim.
A network of so-called Saiga friend groups and local Saiga monitors who act as Saiga advocates and key informants among local communities on the Ustyurt has been successfully established. The Saiga friends – a community network of 10 groups numbering about 50 individuals (including the head of police and teachers of local schools) – have been created encompassing the main villages located in the Saiga’s range on the Uzbek Ustyurt. Saiga friends are volunteers who help deliver the project in the communities, help with recruiting new members, host meetings and provide advice and an insight into the local situation. This type of engagement builds momentum for nature conservation in the region and acts as a conduit for future initiatives in participatory monitoring, ecological education and campaigning for the biodiversity of the Saiga and the wider steppe ecosystem. Further, a total of 12 individuals on the Uzbek Ustyurt are currently engaged as so-called local Saiga monitors, collecting crucial information on Saiga sightings and movements throughout the year. Participatory monitoring is a new way of involving local people in nature conservation in this part of Central Asia. The individuals who are targeted to join the groups and become Saiga monitors are primarily hunters and poachers who, by their nature are very secretive; fully comprehending the illegality of their actions. However, their profound knowledge on the steppe and the Saiga allows for the collection of comparatively low-cost data which, although not scientific, provide crucial information on Saiga which will be used for designing and directing field observations by the Institute of Zoology during the mass migration in winter.