“Unprecedented conservation triumph”: Saiga antelope reclassified from ‘Critically Endangered’ to ‘Near Threatened’ in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
This significant positive status change reflects the species’ remarkable recovery in Kazakhstan resulting from sustained ongoing conservation efforts, but action is still needed to ensure populations continue to improve across the species’ range
Today, December 11th, 2023, the IUCN Red List status assessment of Saiga antelope (Saiga tatarica) has been changed from Critically Endangered to Near Threatened, thanks to effective national and international conservation efforts.
This substantial positive change in global Red List status – a rarity in conservation – reflects the remarkable recovery of saiga populations in Kazakhstan, which have recovered from a perilously low estimate of just 48,000 in 2005 to now over 1.9 million.
This triumph is thanks to significant conservation efforts over nearly two decades by Kazakh and other range state governments, research organisations, national and international NGOs, including the Saiga Conservation Alliance, the Altyn Dala Conservation Initiative – Altyn Dala means Golden Steppe in Kazakh – (comprising the Government of Kazakhstan, the Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity of Kazakhstan [ACBK], Fauna & Flora, Frankfurt Zoological Society, the RSPB), NABU, the Wildlife Conservation Society and WWF-Mongolia. Long term support from donors has been vitally important.
The Government of Kazakhstan has demonstrated highly commendable leadership in species recovery, investing heavily in a suite of impactful actions including anti-poaching initiatives, robust law enforcement and border control measures, and establishment of a series of major new State Protected Areas. Its enduring collaboration with civil society partners has played a crucial role in fostering a collaborative network that incorporates government agencies, conservation practitioners, academics, and international experts, and today’s celebration of success is a culmination of everyone’s efforts.
The Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS) has played a crucial role in bringing governments and civil society organisations across the saiga range together, to agree on and then implement an International Work Programme on the Conservation and Sustainable Use of the Saiga Antelope, in coordination with the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
Under this Work Programme, the partners have together supported governments’ implementation of anti-poaching and law enforcement measures, formally protected key saiga habitats and monitored populations, whilst also working with local communities to raise their awareness of the issues facing saigas and to form community-led ranger teams.
Such an improvement in status shows that conservation and management measures are working and must continue. Yet despite this good news, conservation action is still urgently needed to ensure that saiga antelope has a long-term sustainable future in Kazakhstan, and to ensure that the smaller populations recover in Mongolia, the Russian Federation and Uzbekistan. Current population numbers for saiga in Russia are 38,000, up from 4,500 in 2016, while Uzbekistan hosts an estimated 500 saiga, c.200 of which were first discovered in the Aral Sea Region in 2021 whilst the remaining 300 are isolated by human-made barriers to migration. In November 2023 a census of the Mongolian subspecies reported a population number of 15,540 individuals. There have been no instances of poaching since 2018, when the population level was 3391.
The species will only be fully recovered if it regains its role in the ecosystem across its entire range, with ongoing poaching, illegal trade, disease, climate change, disturbance and infrastructure development all posing a threat to saiga. The species’ new Near Threatened category reflects the potential for its status to deteriorate rapidly in the absence of ongoing conservation action. The commitment from the conservation community is unwavering in its support to this iconic species.
Professor E.J. Milner Gulland, Oxford University, Co-Founder and Chair of the Saiga Conservation Alliance explains: “This brilliant news is the culmination of decades of collaborative work by national and international level organisations across the whole saiga range, including governments, NGOs and academics. It shows how conservation can be effective if all parties work together, with a strong mission and appropriate resourcing.
It’s been the greatest privilege and honour for me to work alongside so many passionate conservationists over the years; the work is not finished, because there are still many threats that need to be addressed if the saiga is to recover and thrive across its whole range. But I am confident that we can get to a future in which the saiga has regained its rightful place within its ecosystems, as a component both of the natural world and the region’s culture and livelihoods.”
Vera Voronova, Executive Director from ACBK, talking on behalf of the Altyn Dala Conservation Initiative adds: “As one of the most successful recoveries of a terrestrial mammal ever recorded, 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 scales up across Kazakhstan and neighbouring countries more broadly, to ensure the long-term recovery of saiga antelope in all range states. We look forward to seeing the sustainable future of the species alongside other native wildlife to benefit steppe grassland ecosystem restoration and rural communities’ livelihoods.”
Amy Fraenkel, Executive Secretary of the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals states: “The remarkable recovery of the Saiga antelope underscores the importance of international cooperation for the conservation of migratory species. The improved conservation status of the Saiga, from Critically Endangered to Near Threatened, demonstrates how the collective efforts of governments, scientific experts, conservation organizations, local communities, intergovernmental bodies and other stakeholders can turn the tide on extinction. Yet, as we celebrate this success, we need to continue significant conservation efforts for the Saiga, which is highly susceptible to sudden changes, and whose recovery is not uniform across its range. I am confident that the work of CMS, all of the Saiga range states, and the many entities committed to Saiga conservation will continue to achieve positive results for this treasured species.”