The Critically Endangered Saiga Continues to Face Fluctuating Populations

These migrating herbivores survived the ice age, but can they survive humans?

Wild male Saiga antelope in Kalmykia steppe

VictorTyakht / Getty Images

Known for its distinct nose and ribbed horns, the once abundant saiga can trace its history back to the time of woolly mammoths across what eventually became southeastern Europe and Central Asia. Currently considered critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), these unique antelopes have already gone extinct in their native ranges throughout Ukraine and China—mainly due to excessive hunting.

Over a period of 15 years starting in the 1990s, the global saiga population decreased 95%, one of the fastest declines ever recorded for any mammal species. Today, there are just five resident saiga populations left on Earth, one in Russia, three in Kazakhstan, and one in Mongolia, with a decreasing total population of between 123,450 and 124,200.

Threats

A young saiga kid in Russia

Nikolay Denisov / Getty Images 

Once numbered in the millions, saigas saw a drastic decline in population in the early 20th century. Legal protections in 1919 helped bring them back, reaching populations of around 540,000 animals in Russia and 1,300,000 in Kazakhstan in 1963. In the 1990s, however, saiga numbers fell once again as a result of political and economic changes following the breakup of the USSR.

Numbers continued to plummet even further as international borders began opening up, creating more opportunities for trading saiga horn—highly valued in traditional Chinese medicine.

Historically, illegal hunting represented the greatest threat to the dwindling global saiga population, but time has shown that these animals are extremely vulnerable to factors like climate change and disease as well.

Uncontrolled Hunting

Although the international distribution of saiga horn is banned under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the demand for products continues to drive the illegal wildlife trade. And while the species is protected in all of its range states, the level of enforcement can vary.

Since only saiga males are hunted for their long, wax-colored horn (females are also hunted, but their lack of horns limits their trade value), mass hunting affects reproduction as it skews the sex ratio.

A TRAFFIC survey across peninsular Malaysia in 2018 revealed the saiga horn to be one of the most common wildlife-derived medicinal products alongside bear bile pills and porcupine bezoar. Of 228 traditional Chinese medicine outlets identified in the study, 67.5% of them were found to be openly selling saiga products for as much as $55 per gram (0.035 ounces).

Climate Change

Male subspecies of saiga in Chyornye Zemli (Black Lands) Nature Reserve, Kalmykia region, Russia.

DNK-KolyaN / Getty Images 

Extreme climatic events, such as drought, wildfires, or heavy snow, can pose a direct threat to saiga herds when they limit their ability to forage. The destruction of key habitats and migration routes from climate change creates even more issues in the long term, while factors like rising temperatures cause water bodies to dry up during the spring and summer months when newborn saigas are at their most vulnerable. 

Disease

Recent history has shown four mass mortality events in saiga populations accredited to various diseases, of which saiga are especially susceptible.

A respiratory disease took a group of 20,000 females after they calved in Ural, Russia, in 2010, followed almost immediately by a similar event in 2011.

In 2015, a mass mortality event in central Kazakhstan killed more than 200,000 saigas over a three-week period believed to have been caused by the bacterium Pasteurella multocida.

Detection of the highly contagious Peste des Petits Ruminants (PPR) disease, otherwise known as sheep and goat plague, in Mongolia a year later led to a full-blown epidemic by early 2017 that wiped out 80% of the population.

The species barely had time to recover before that very same population of Mongolian saiga suffered food shortages from an especially harsh winter the following year, killing 40% of the population over the season.

What We Can Do

Wild Saiga antelopes in steppe near watering hole

VictorTyakht / Getty Images

These rare antelopes may have an uncertain future, but hope is not lost. Saiga females usually give birth to twins, so the species has a high potential for recovery when populations get too low. Conservation efforts have already proven effective in Kazakhstan, where a 2021 census showed the country’s saiga population rose by over half a million in two years to 842,000 individuals. That's a good sign, especially seeing as Kazakhstan is home to over 90% of the global saiga population (Russia, Mongolia, and Uzbekistan account for the rest).

Even the smaller groups have continued to climb–the world’s smallest saiga herd in the Ustyurt Plateau, for example, went from producing just four newborn calves in 2019 to 530 in 2020

Fight Wildlife Crime

The Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity of Kazakhstan is currently working with Fauna & Flora International and the local Kazakhstan government to monitor the distribution and movement of saiga populations in order to protect them from poachers.

The organizations also establish and train wildlife ranger programs including those with sniffer dogs to detect saiga parts within Kazakhstan and across the border. 

Scientific Research

Monitoring saiga populations and migration patterns through methods like satellite transmitters can help identify which habitats and passages are more suitable for conservation efforts. The species is difficult to maintain in captivity, so most of the conservation based research pertaining to saiga takes place in the wild.

Restore Habitat

Restoring habitat lost to climate change and development, as well as the migration corridors between them, is essential to maintaining a sustainable global saiga population.

The Wildlife Conservation Network is working to restore saiga populations in areas around the Aral Sea, a former salt lake that dried up in the 20th century due to water overuse. In 2018, the World Wildlife Fund established a network of artificial watering holes for saiga in Russia using a series of abandoned artesian wells originally installed during the Soviet era.

Save the Saiga

  • Support organizations dedicated to saving the saiga, like the Saiga Conservation Alliance, a partner of the Wildlife Conservation Network with over 15 years of experience in saiga research and conservation.
  • Anonymously report illegal wildlife crimes where you see them, especially while traveling in countries like Kazakhstan, Russia, Mongolia, Uzbekistan, and China, where saiga horn is more widely used.
  • Shop for products from the Kuralai Alternative Livelihood project, a cooperative of local women in Uzbekistan who create traditionally embroidered bags to raise money for saiga conservation.
View Article Sources
  1. "Saiga." International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species, 2018., doi:10.2305/IUCN.UK.2018-2.RLTS.T19832A50194357.en

  2. "Saiga Conservation Alliance." Wildlife Conservation Network.

  3. Gomez, Lolita and Kanitha Krishnasamy. "A Rapid Assessment of the Trade in Saiga Antelope in Peninsular Malaysia." TRAFFIC Bulletin, vol. 31, no. 1, 2019, pp. 35-38.

  4. Fereidouni, Sasan, et al. "Mass Die-Off of Saiga Antelopes, Kazakhstan, 2015." Emerging Infectious Diseases, vol. 25, no. 6, 2019, pp. 1169-1176., doi:10.3201/eid2506.180990

  5. Pruvot, Mathieu, et al. "Outbreak of Peste des Petits Ruminants Among Critically Endangered Mongolian Saiga and Other Wild Ungulates, Mongolia, 2016-2017." Emerging Infectious Diseases, vol. 26, no. 1, 2020, pp. 51-62., doi:10.3201/eid2601.181998

  6. Davis, Elizabeth. "Critically Endangered Mongolian Saiga Antelope Population Drops by 40 Percent, WWF Survey Shows." World Wildlife Fund, 2018.

  7. "Saiga Saga- Signs of Hope for the Yo-Yoing Antelope." Fauna and Flora International.