The saiga antelope, characterized by its distinctive snout, has roamed the dry plains of the Eurasian steppe since before the last Ice Age. Poachers target this critically endangered species for its horns, which are used for traditional Chinese medicine, and its meat, but its population has made a comeback over the past several years. In 2014, the saiga population was around 260,000.
In May, however, saigas began dying at an alarming rate in Kazakhstan, where over 90% of the world’s population is located. More than 130,000 saigas were killed by a mysterious and devastating disease in just a few weeks. By early June, the death rate had petered out, but the disease left the saiga population more vulnerable than ever.
Working with an already modest budget, responding to crises can be challenging for WCN Partner Saiga Conservation Alliance (SCA). However, thanks to overwhelming support from donors, SCA was able to begin searching for the causes behind the saiga deaths and amping up protection levels for the remaining saigas. Tests are ongoing, but researchers believe that the lethal effects of disease, and potentially several diseases, were dramatically increased by a mixture of factors, from pasture conditions to females weakened by calving. The information being gathered now will help mitigate future threats.
SCA is now strengthening ranger efforts across the saiga’s range. The saiga that remain are extremely important to the future of the species, so rangers will get a boost in protecting them with new field equipment and vehicles.
The good news is that the saiga is a resilient species that has, with help, bounced back from large-scale mortality in the past. Saiga can breed rapidly to recover once their situation stabilizes, and they hopefully will do so again.