Conservation of migratory species in the face of new threats and limited data availability: Case study of saiga antelope in Uzbekistan

Emma Mardsen

The saiga antelope, Saiga tatarica, is a critically endangered species but relatively little is known about the population that migrate south into the Ustyurt plateau of Uzbekistan during the winter months. This population is now facing both new conservation opportunities and new threats. Funding has been made available for saiga monitoring in the region and a protected area extension for the saiga has been proposed, whilst simultaneously a border fence built between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan threatens to cut off the saiga migration route and cause animal deaths due to entanglement. Science is needed to support conservation decisionmaking on all areas of change and time is limited.

This study uses mapping and species distribution modelling using existing saiga sightings data to build up a scientific evidence base on the factors affecting saiga distributions in Uzbekistan. Sightings data are assessed to identify gaps and bias, and to make recommendations for future monitoring efforts. MaxEnt models are used to identify the factors affecting saiga distribution, areas important for saiga protection and possible impacts of the new border fence.

Results show that the saiga data for Uzbekistan are of poor quality and efforts are needed to reduce bias in monitoring. Models indicate that zones of the proposed new nature reserve overlap well with areas that are important for saiga all year round, as well as covering newly identified potentially permanent populations, and that saiga should be able to survive north of the border if their migration route is cut off. However, heavy snowfall during the migration period means that they are at a high risk of getting entangled in the fence. Mitigation measures are needed across the length of the fence, not just in the eastern section as previously believed.

Overall, better data are desperately required but cannot be collected in the time frame available for action to protect the saiga. Mitigation measures to reduce the impact of the fence need to be implemented before the saiga move south at the end of the year. This study provides recommendations for future action.