Saiga antelope, native to Eastern Europe and most of Central Asia, suffered a devastating blow in 2015 when a deadly outbreak wiped out over 200,000 of the population found on Kazakhstan's Ustyurt Plateau. As one of the smallest populations of this critically endangered species, conservationists have been closely monitoring the health of the herd in an effort to recover their numbers.
Things were looking bleak, with just four calves reportedly born in 2019, but a census on the antelopes revealed their population had rebounded to 334,400 animals, more than double records taken two years earlier. Then in May of this year, an exciting discovery reported by Conservation of Biodiversity of Kazakhstan (ACBK) on Facebook revealed a new calving site home to 530 newborn saigas, representing a much-needed baby boom for the endangered population.
It’s really exciting for all of us,” said Saken Dildakhmet, press secretary for the Kazakhstan government’s Committee of Forestry and Wildlife according to a report from National Geographic. “Due to good protection and patrolling efforts of the state rangers after the mass die-off, every year we’re seeing a steady growth of the saiga population.”
Millions of saiga once trod the grassy plains of the Ustyurt Plateau, but after the collapse of the Soviet Union, they were hunted for their horns, which were traded for use in traditional Asian medicine, plummeting their numbers in Central Asia. Poaching has since declined but the saiga continues to face an uphill battle against human infrastructure, which has interrupted their annual migration.
The Kazakh government installed fencing to divide the country with Uzbekistan in 2014 to dissuade poachers and drug traffickers, but it didn’t just block them. Saiga winter over the border before returning to Kazakhstan to breed in late April, meaning their natural migration was blocked, though evidence of some sneaking through was discovered in the form of fur and blood.
Gaps in the fence were introduced to try and overcome this literal obstacle, and after years of being ignored, it seems the saiga have finally begun using them. However, researchers urge that numbers still need to see significant improvement as compared to former population estimates, a baby boom of even 530 is still not enough. For a population that was once hanging on by a thread, however, the 2020 calf count for the Ustyurt Plateau population is a promising sign.
[H/T: National Geographic]