The results of the aerial survey of saiga populations in Kazakhstan in 2016

The results of the aerial survey of saiga populations in Kazakhstan in 2016

Steffen Zuther and Albert Salemgareev. Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity of Kazakhstan,,

From 18 April to 3 May 2016 the Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity of Kazakhstan (ACBK) carried out an annual aerial survey of all three saiga populations in Kazakhstan - the Betpakdala, Ural and Ustyurt populations. The survey was ordered by the Committee for Forestry and Wildlife of the Ministry of Agriculture of the Republic of Kazakhstan and was implemented in cooperation with Okhotzooprom and Kazaviaspas. The aerial survey involved officials from regional forestry and wildlife inspectorates, as well as from protected areas - the Altyn Dala Nature reserve, Irgiz Turgay State Nature Reserve and Korgylzhan Reserve.     

According to the survey, in 2016 the total number of saigas in the Republic of Kazakhstan was 108,300 individuals, 36,200 of which were in the Betpakdala population, 70,200 Ural, and 1,900 Ustyurt.

The data indicate that the Ural and Ustyurt populations have grown in size. However, the number of animals in the Betpakdala population was lower than that in the previous year, which means the population has not yet recovered after the mass die-off in 2015. Nevertheless, the species' biological characteristics allow us to hope that it will recover soon.  

The Ural population has been growing steadily at around 35% over the last few years and, according to the survey, is currently the largest one. The same growth rate was observed in the Betpakdala population and it can, therefore, be regarded as typical of saiga populations living in relatively good conditions without very harsh winters and active poaching.    

The Ustyurt population remains the most vulnerable. The main cause of the population decrease is poaching. However, the latest survey showed that the population has enough males for population growth even if the male proportion is low. The population size is not decreasing but is still very small.   

The distinguishing feature of the 2016 aerial survey was that a new aircraft, the Eurocopter 145, was used instead of an AN 2 aeroplane. This substitution required some changes to make the survey conform to the necessary standards. This included rules of behaviour for the surveyors while on board the helicopter, based on the wide visual range through the aircraft's windows, a new communication system which had not yet been optimised, and the limited number of surveyors. In addition, there were some technical challenges associated with the fixation of survey transect markers and the limited flight duration. However, these challenges were soon overcome by using a new fixation system and refuelling in the steppe from ,petrol tankers. All the problems were soon solved and the survey was carried out in complete conformity with the newly developed protocols, making it quite possible to compare the 2016 results with the those obtained in the previous surveys.