Mapping the spring and winter distribution of Kalmykia's Saiga population

The saiga is a critically endangered, migratory antelope of the Eurasian steppe, which declined by more than 95% in a decade, from a population of a million in the early 1990s to an estimated 30,000 by 2003. The species has received little attention, though in recent years, levels of research have increased. The saiga is a keystone species; the decline of the saiga has lead to severe ecological changes in the steppe ecosystem.

Recent research suggests the migratory behaviour of the saiga in Kalmykia has been disrupted and their seasonal distribution is unclear. The main aim of this study was to identify saiga distribution in Kalmykia during winter and spring, based on data from a participatory monitoring programme. Models were produced to identify the drivers of distribution and predict likely areas of saiga occupancy.

An extensive area of likely saiga habitat was identified across central and southern Kalmykia, centred around the Stepnoi and Chernye Zemli Biosphere reserves. Key predictors of saiga presence were distance to the protected areas and distance to water; the probability of saiga presence increased in areas closer to water and the reserves. Based on this study, participatory monitoring has clear potential to contribute to our understanding of saiga distribution and migratory behaviour.