By Richard A. Kock and E.J. Milner-Gulland
Reproduced by kind permission of 'Natural History' magazine.
First published in the April 2018 issue.
Every year at calving time for the past six years, an
international team of researchers-under the authority of the
government of Kazakhstan and in collaboration with Kazakhstan
research institutions-has been monitoring the health of the saiga
antelope population in central Kazakhstan.
Saigas once roamed widely over steppes and semi-arid deserts
from southeastern Europe to Mongolia and into China. Now, one
population of Saiga tatarica tatarica, the nominate subspecies,
exists in Russia, three in Kazakhstan, one of which migrates to
Uzbekistan in the winter. There is another distinct sub-species,
Saiga tatarica mongolica, in western Mongolia. Populations in the
rest of their once-wider range are extinct.
Since 2002, the World Conservation Union's (IUCN) Red List has
listed saigas, Saiga tatarica L., as Critically Endangered. The
species was listed as lower risk-conservation dependent only in
2000, but then suffered a rapid, more than ninety percent, decline
in its global population, due to poaching after the break-up of the
Soviet Union, leading to a population of less than 50,000 in
As one of us (Milner-Gulland) reported in a 2001 paper in
Oryx, the literature shows that "Saiga populations have fluctuated
dramatically over the last century, principally as a result of
hunting for meat and horns, and climatic variability. The horns are
borne only by males and are used in traditional Chinese medicine.
Data on historical changes in the numbers and range of the
Mongolian subspecies are minimal. The nominate subspecies was
heavily hunted in the nineteenth century, and by the time of the
Soviet revolution was reduced to a few thousand individuals. A
complete ban on hunting allowed populations to recover, and
regulated commercial hunting was started in the 1950s. Regulated
hunting, principally for meat, continued throughout the Soviet
period. Since then, a collapse in funding and infrastructure for
saiga management, combined with a disintegrating rural economy, has
led to uncontrolled large-scale poaching for meat and horns."
From 2005 to 2015, some populations of the species started to
By 2015, there were more than 300,000 individuals in
existence-of which 240,000, or more, were in the Betpak-dala
population of Kazakhstan. In Soviet times, Kazakhstan's saiga
populations were well monitored by teams of scientists from the
Institute of Zoology of the Kazakhstan Academy of Sciences. After
the break-up of the Soviet Union, monitoring became more patchy,
due to lack of resources and capacity. However, in the last few
years, detailed monitoring of the Betpak-dala population, and to a
lesser extent the other populations, has restarted, led by the
Kazakhstan government's Committee on Hunting and Forestry, with
scientific input from the local non-government agency, the
Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity in Kazakhstan.
International veterinary researchers joined this effort, in
response to a disease outbreak in the Ural population in 2010. In
the Soviet literature, mass deaths from disease have been reported
in 1974, 1981, 1988, and 2010. In 1974, the cause was
foot-and-mouth disease from livestock (pre-vaccination), while in
the other years, various types of pasteurellosis, a bacterial
infection, were implicated.
In 2014, calving went without incident. The population
appeared healthy and growing. Before the start of the 2015 calving
season, aerial surveys determined the locations and sizes of
gathering herds. By the start of calving, which happens over a wide
area, monitoring teams were in place on the ground, scattered among
the three saiga population sites in Kazakhstan. Over 240,000
females were aggregated in the Betpak-dala region in fifteen, or
A mass burial ground for dead saigas in Kazakhstan in
On a hot and humid Sunday, May 10, reports began coming in to
the team base of deaths at the Torgai site where about 62,000
saigas were concentrated. The team located the herd and on May 11,
team members, upon arrival at the site, recorded 100 deaths, which
they estimated had died within the past one to two days. In the
following two days, the count rose to 400, then 1,000, then 20,000
by the 16th. By the 19th, there were no known survivors...
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