It is too early to give up on the saiga? Vyacheslav Gagarin

It is too early to give up on the saiga? Vyacheslav Gagarin

Editorial note: As we reported in SN, 20, the Russian Federation has made the decision to include the saiga into their Red Book of Endangered Species. This decision has generated controversy. The Mammals section of the Bureau of the Committee for rare and endangered animals, plants and fungi discussed whether only the population in the North-West pre-Caspian area should be included, but a majority vote recommended that the saiga should be included as a species inhabiting the territory of the Russian Federation. An extensive discussion is taking place on the site, before the final decision is made. Today we publish an article by Vyacheslav Gagarin on this topic, as well as some responses by Russian experts.


According to the optimistic estimates of some experts, saiga numbers are stable in the northwest pre-Caspian area, while the pessimistic estimates of other, equally experienced, experts suggest that they are steadily decreasing. Experts agree only on one issue; there has been no increase in the saiga population, and it is not foreseen in the near future. My attitude to the debate on whether saigas should be included in the Red Book is that this is the surest way to bury it not only as a hunting resource but as a species as well. Everybody knows what the Russian Federation's Red Book is; a hospice for species whose numbers are low or reducing. As soon as any species is included into this list, one can surely bid farewell to it. Ask yourselves how many species in the Red Book have started to increase in numbers? How many of them have been removed from the Red Book after they were restored? Everybody knows the answer. In Russia, funding for the conservation of Red Book species is by an order of magnitude lower than funding for conservation of hunting resources and frequently it is completely lacking. In addition, in this country no one is responsible for the conservation and restoration of Red Book species, or at least there is no awareness of the results of any such activity.

Who speaks loudly in favour of the saiga being included in the Red Book? First of all, they are nature conservation organisations such as WWF and IFAW, despite their realisation that this would negatively affect the species' conservation status. Government nature conservation agencies are also keen to see the saiga in the Red Book, which would be very opportune, allowing them to say 'We have done our utmost' and wash their hands.


Alexey Vaisman
Deputy Director, Centre of Hunting Control, Russia
I agree with V. Gagarin's every word about the Red Book. As a member of the Red Book Section for mammals and of the Bureau of the Commission for rare species, I am very well aware of the general worthlessness of the Red Book as a tool for conservation. However, I voted in favor of including this species in the Red Book.  Currently, only a specific species-focused federal programme can save the species. That it should be federal is especially important given that the government of the Republic of Kalmykia, where the saiga is considered to be "a Kalmyk natural heritage", will not do anything itself. Article 258.1 of the Criminal Code provides for very severe punishment for illegally killing or trading saigas. Yet saigas are heavily hunted, and all the fences in Kalmykia are covered with horn buying ads. Has anybody been caught and convicted? Practically no one! The price of a pair of horns is comparable to the average wage in Kalmykia's agricultural sector. Saiga horns are also known as ling yang (羚羊) and used in Traditional Chinese Medicine. Which shepherd on a motorcycle could resist catching "a wage" running past him? 
Thus, in order to save the saiga, we need a federal programme and big money, controlled from the centre. This requires the saiga to obtain federal status, via the Red Book.

Maria Vorontsova,

Director, Russian Programme, International Foundation for Nature  Protection, IFAW

The Red Book of the Russian Federation is the main official vehicle for identifying rare and endangered species and populations. It is necessary in order to keep track of the status of these species and their habitats, and to plan their conservation. Today, very little is being done to protect wildlife in Russia, a heavy wave of poaching is swamping the country, yet administrative reform has disorganized the system of wildlife conservation. Nevertheless, it is due to the Red Book that Russia succeeded in attracting the attention of both the public and decision-makers, and consequently the funds for conservation which saved species such as the tiger, grey whale, black stork, goitred gazelle from complete extirpation. The Red Book serves as a reflection of the real state of affairs, not human preferences. After the saiga is included in the Red Book, it will stop being the object of argument in Russia that it has been for the last few years; on the contrary, it will unite environmental structures at different levels - from federal to regional and municipal. This will allow law enforcement agencies and public bodies to engage in implementing protection measures. Just placing the saiga in the Red Book will cause federal government authorities to develop a comprehensive conservation programme for the species, attracting considerable funds under strict control. And then the authorities of the Republic of Kalmykia will not perceive the saiga as a "headache" or a political and economic tool. I agree with V. Gagarin's opinion that in the future, when the saiga recovers (with our joint support), it will represent an excellent opportunity for economic growth and sustainable development in rural areas.

On the one hand, V Gagarin quite correctly raises the point that it is not enough to include a species in the Red Book; specific measures for its conservation need to be articulated. Often (and for many species!) these are limited to forbidding hunting and conserving its habitats. That's, of course, not enough! Restoration is also needed, particularly for the saiga. The Red Book is a federal document which allows, both at the local and federal levels, the design and implementation of special conservation measures (and here the saiga is an absolute equal of the Siberian tiger or Amur leopard), including financing.

What specific actions does V Gagarin propose that would be impossible to implement after the saiga is in the Red Book, or that can be only be executed by hunters? Following this logic, protection of any rare species which is not considered game is doomed. So why is the Red Book ineffective? V. Gagarin gives only one answer - less funding is allocated for species in the Red Book than for game species. This is exactly what we should strive against if we can substantiate it. In the well-known phrase by M. Zhvanetsky, "What you keep watch and ward over, belongs to you". 

Vladimir Krever,                              

Director, Biodiversity Conservation Programme, WWF-Russia 

The saiga has been sufficiently studied and the causes of its catastrophic decline are known: increased poaching, habitat loss and environmental degradation. One reason why V Gagarin suggests the saiga should not be included in the Red Book is that there is more funding available for game management than for Red Book species. Why, then is the saiga in such a deplorable state? We find the answer in the article; there is no political will and the financing is insufficient. 

The author sees the state budget as the source of financing. And therefore political will is needed. But it would be easier to prove the necessity of emergency measures if a species were in the Red Book. 

These days Russian leadership at the highest level demonstrates its interest in conservation. Currently, this attention is given to such emblematic species as tiger, leopard, polar bear, snow leopard, white crane and others, but rare species will also be given appropriate attention.

We consider the Red Book as an efficient mechanism for conservation. However, reform is needed to enforce implementation of conservation measures for species in the Red Book. The first steps have been taken this year, allowing ranking of species by the extent and urgency of the conservation measures they need. Entering the saiga into the Red Book will serve as grounds for the approval and execution of a strategy and action plan for their conservation, including financing, under the Ministry of Nature Protection, as mandated in law. 

Criminal responsibility for smuggling (Article 2261 of the Russian Federation Criminal Code) and illegal hunting and trade of high-value wild animals (Article 2591) is intended to serve as an additional lever to restrict poaching. However, this cannot be effective without action by inspection staff in all agencies. Including the saiga in the Red Book will lead to an increase in the financial value used to calculate damage caused by illegal hunting and habitat destruction, which will increase the fine paid by those apprehended for these crimes. This will make a poacher reconsider how much would it cost him to kill a saiga. 

The main thing which should be noted is that currently the question at issue is not who controls this resource; hunters or nature conservationists.

It is how we can conserve the saiga as part of the fauna of our country, and return it again into the category of sustainably used natural resources. I would remind readers that the conservation of rare species is a duty of game hunters. Then what we are talking about?