Understanding the Drivers of Illegal Saiga Consumption on the Uzbek Ustyurt

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Article by Laura Kor (Imperial College London, UK), Mariya Gritsina and Elena Bykova (Institute of the Gene Pool of Plants and Animals, Uzbekistan), Carlyn Samuel and E.J. Milner-Gulland (Saiga Conservation Alliance, and University of Oxford, UK). Corresponding author: Laura Kor. Contact: laurabkor@gmail.com Image by kind permission of Alexander Esipov.

Understanding the drivers of illegal saiga consumption

Article published in Saiga News Issue 20 on page 21.

Introduction: 

The Ustyurt saiga population continues to face a range of threats from infrastructural development and poaching activity. With the border fence erected between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan severely impacting migratory movements, there is a strong need to address hunting pressures in order to protect the remaining Uzbek saiga population.

In this study, we used the Theory of Planned Behaviour (TPB), a social psychological framework for the study of human decision-making (see Mabbutt et al. Saiga News Issue 19). We aimed to understand people's attitudes towards eating saiga meat and towards conservation and poaching.

Methodology:

Researchers carried out quantitative household questionnaires and qualitative key informant (KI) interviews in Uzbekistan in May and June 2015. Household questionnaires examined the three determinants of behaviour defined by the TPB; attitudes, social norms and perceived behavioural control. Additionally, knowledge about saigas was assessed. Key informant interviews were designed to be more flexible, exploring the perceptions of respondents with specialist knowledge. One hundred and four household questionnaires were conducted in the Ustyurt villages of Kyrk-Kyz and Kubla Ustyurt and 15 key informant interviews were held within the same villages and in the cities of Nukus and Tashkent. Discussion surrounding saiga consumption and poaching was extremely sensitive, with 31% of respondents refusing to respond.

Results:

1) Changes in the saiga meat trade

Our respondents suggested that the levels of consumption and purchase of saiga meat are significantly lower than in previous years; a trend attributed to the decline in saiga numbers rather than rule enforcement or increased knowledge. The way meat is procured and the economic status of those who consume it have changed. Saiga meat is no longer viewed as a "meat for the poor", with just 13% of respondents agreeing with the statement that only poor people would want to eat it. Instead, there is increased demand from wealthier, urban consumers who place orders directly with poachers. Additionally, the role of shepherds in saiga poaching was revealed, with assertions that they alert poachers to the location of saigas and approaching rangers.

2) The importance of knowledge

Knowledge was positively correlated with attitudes to saigas, such that people who knew more about saiga ecology and laws were more likely to feel positive about saigas (Spearman's rank; rs=0.434, p<0.01). Knowledge scores varied with gender, village and employment status but were generally low, with just 34% of respondents recognising the illegality of consuming saiga meat. People who stated they didn't know that saiga meat was illegal to consume were more likely to state that eating saiga meat is a normal thing to do (T-test; t=2.21, df=99, p=0.03). Awareness of Saiga Conservation Alliance outreach activities was relatively low, with 26% of respondents having heard of Saiga Day and 11% being aware of Steppe Wildlife Clubs. This is probably because there is relatively limited conservation activity by the SCA in these villages, in comparison with Jaslyk and Karakalpakiya, which are the biggest settlements where the majority of poachers are found. In total, eight out of 101 people interviewed had previously attended a Saiga Day.

3) The determinants of behaviour

Whilst people were generally positive about eating saiga meat, its low availability has resulted in a decrease in actual consumption (Figure 1). Therefore, continued work is needed to tackle the underlying drivers of saiga poaching, rather than focussing on the overall trends.

Theory Of Planned Behaviour Framework

Figure 1. Summary of relevant results within the Theory of Planned Behaviour framework

Conclusion and Recommendations:

Findings highlighted the following actions and target groups to be incorporated in future saiga conservation initiatives in the Ustyurt Plateau:

1. An increase in the availability of affordable alternative meats is required in Ustyurt villages to decrease reliance on hunting wildlife.

2. Conservation initiatives should include wealthier urban consumers, in cities like Nukus, who now appear to be driving the saiga meat trade. There is a need to identify those involved and explore the best means of altering behaviour.

3. Shepherds were found to aid poaching activity. This suggests that they could be targeted for conservation engagement instead, for example by employing them as wildlife monitors.

4. Efforts should be continued to improve local knowledge surrounding saigas and other wildlife. SCA activities need a higher profile.

5. Considering that eating saigas is part of traditional culture amongst local people, it may be beneficial to promote saiga conservation as a means to enable future hunting and consumption, in order to engage support.

6. The Kazakh-Uzbek border fence is a major contributary factor to population declines, requiring international collaboration and mitigation.

We thank the Disney Conservation Fund for supporting this work. Alternatively, a full account of this study can be found here.