The saiga antelope (Saiga tatarica L.) it is a unique species, one of the most escient representatives of mammoth’s fauna (70-50 thousands years ago). It is a nomadic species that inhabits the semi-arid ecosystems of Central Asia. One of the two sub-species, S. t. tatarica, lives in Kalmykia, Russian Federation (1 population) and in Kazakhstan (3 populations). It migrates seasonally to Uzbekistan (Karakalpakstan) and Turkmenistan. In some seasons saiga stay also between Ural and Volga rivers on the territory of Astrakhanskaya and Volgogradskaya regions of Russia. The other subspecies (Saiga tatarica mongolica) lives in Mongolia.
Total saiga numbers were fluctuating dramatically during last decades:
- at the beginning of the previous century it dropped from some millions to only some thousands (in very small populations, isolated in reserves);
- a ban on saiga hunting was issued in 1919 and in force until 1950th;
- since the 30-th the restoration of saiga population started, since 50-th regular commercial hunting was allowed. Saiga were most numerous until 1960;
- ploughing of steppe areas and agricultural developments lead to a subdivision of saiga population into three practically independent ones in Kazakhstan:
- Steppe area between Volga and Ural rivers (Russian-Kazakhstan border),
- Ustyurt (transboundary areas with Uzbekistan; sometimes animals migrate to Turkmenistan);
- Betpak-dala (central Kazakhstan);
- one more peak in saiga numbers occurred at the end of the 70-th;
- population numbers were fluctuating around a stable level in the 80-th, until the early 90th (about 1 to 1,2 millions), despite commercial hunting, poaching and wolf predation.
- between 1996 to 1998 the population still numbered about 800 000, with 260 000 in Kamlykia, 104 000 in Ural, 248 000 in Betpak-Dala and 246 000 in Ustyurt;
- in 1998 an abrupt decrease occurred in all populations, except in Ustyurt (low human population density). The population dropped to a total number of 175 thousands in the year 2000 (116 thousands in Ustyurt) and to about 100 thousands in 2001: about 18 000 in Kalmykia , 10 000 in Ural, 10-15 000 in Betpak-dala, 60 000 in Ustyurt; in 2002 no more then 60 thousands saiga were registered – total in all populations.
There exists a point of view (supported by some researchers), that the main reason for such a population decline are natural fluctuations of population numbers, typical for this numerous migratory species. But no natural fluctuations can ever lead to 0,8% of males in any population – and this is an absolute prove, that selective poaching on males for their horns - was the major influential factor of this situation.
There is a complete ban on commercial saiga hunting and approved national programs, for rebuilding the populations in Kazakhstan and Kalmykia.. The Regional Plan for Sustainable Development of Kazakhstan includes saiga restoration as one of the first priorities.
Data on the current status of saiga populations were collected in 2000 with support from two INTAS projects (97-11197, 96-2056). Initial urgent measures on the improvement of anti-poaching activities in Kalmykia are being supported by WWF and the Dutch Embassy in the Russian Federation; .
According to the data from the aerial census in spring 2004 estimation of the number of saiga in Betpak-dala ( 30 000 km 2) was 6900 animals (let's remind, that in 2003 no more then 2000 saiga were registered as a result of aerial census). The percentage of young’s was not less then 10 % of the total number of visually registered animals. According to the data of 2005 there are already about 10 000 saiga. We don’t expect population to increase so rapidly thanks to natural reproduction only, but animals react on improved protection and concentrate in safe areas.
The decline in all populations is aggravated by a serious increase in the wolf population and a dramatic decrease of livestock numbers (by 90% during the last 8 years). The decrease of the livestock leads to enhancement of ecosystems which benefits all wildlife, but increases at the same time wolf predation on saiga. Lack of livestock, means also less meat for people and consequently more pressure on wildlife. Saiga are poached for meat and for their horns which are soled and used for oriental medicine. Poaching for horn, causes changes in the sex-ratio, and provides wolfs with easy food, because poachers, who go for the horn, very often leave the carcasses in steppe. To suppress illegal horn trade, saiga was added to Appendix 2 of the «Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora» (CITES) in 1994. This helped to decrease official trade, but did not stop the illegal one.
In Kazakhstan, during more than 40 years, saiga was the main source of commercial hunting (by licenses), and the major source of meat, leather-processing, other raw material and horn export. In the beginning of the 90s population numbered (in spring, before lambing) 800 to 900 thousands. This allowed an annual off take of 100 thousands per year. The hunting was well regulated and provided funding for monitoring saiga populations and to control poaching. The complete hunting ban, which has been imposed, did not lead to better conservation, due to lack of anti-poaching controls, which could no longer be carried out due to lack of funds. The situation has seriously changed since 3 years already in Kazakhstan, as Kazakh government provides serious funds specially for saiga protection.
For effective protection of the species and its habitat it is necessary to work out a system of ecological, legal and socio-economic measures. The first step for that was undertaken at an international workshop which was held in Kalmykia in May 2002. The workshop was hosted and supported by the Kalmykia Government and by several international donors: The CITES Secretariat, Secretariat of Bonn Convention, Conservation Force, Houston Safari Club, the Netherlands Embassy in Moscow, and WWF GB. The workshop focused on the situation in Kalmykia and transborder issues related to the Ural population, but deeply discussed the situation with saiga populations throughout the whole area. As the result of this meeting, a draft of MOU and Action Plan for saiga conservation are developed, and sent to the main stakeholders for comments, corrections and additions – and for further preliminary approvals.