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Saiga Population in Mongolia

L. Amgalan (Institute of general biology, MAS),
S. Tuyatsatsral (WWF-Mongolia)


The Mongolian saiga Saiga tatarica mongolica is one of several ungulate species listed in The Red Data Book of Mongolia (1987, 1997) and in the reviewed version of the Hunting Law of Mongolia, 1995. As early as 1975 this antelope was included into the Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) because of concern about the adverse impact of hunting on the species for its horns, which are valued in traditional Chinese medicine. In 1979, at the 2nd meeting of the Parties to CITES, it was deleted from Appendix I. The reason given was that there was no evidence that Saiga tatarica mongolica was present in trade. Saiga tatarica tatarica was traded in large numbers, but mostly for meat, and it was not listed in the Appendices at all because the trade was not deemed to be a threat. Some delegations insisted on including the Mongolian saiga in Appendix I, but the proposal was declined due to the difficulties with precise identification of the saiga horns at the markets of Kazakhstan, Kalmykia of Russian Federation and Mongolia and decided to list both subspecies in Appendix II according to the decision of the 4th Conference of Member countries held in November 1994, USA.

Most of the recent reviews on mammals state that the genus Saiga Gray, 1843 is represented by one polytypic species, Saiga tatarica Linnaeus, 1766, including two extant subspecies, the nominal form Saiga tatarica tatarica – and the Mongolian saiga - Saiga tatarica mongolica Bannicov, 1951. Earlier, Bannikov (1946), as a result of his investigations in Mongolia, expressed doubt about the monotypic status of the genus Saiga and described a new species Saiga mongolica sp. Nova, based on several saiga specimens from the western part of the country. Later, he (Bannikov, 1951) and other investigators (Sokolov, 1959; Heptner et al., 1961) concluded that the Mongolian Saiga should be considered as a subspecies of Saiga tatarica – Saiga tatarica mongolica.

Saiga tatarica mongolica differs from Saiga tatarica tatarica in its smaller size, more elevated nasal bones, from of nasal aperture, and larger, rounder eye-sockets. Bannikov (1951) noted the smaller, more slender and less curved horns of Saiga tatarica mongolica as well as differences in nutrition. He also noted that, unlike Saiga tatarica, the Mongolian Saiga does not undertake regular large-scale migrations and that the lambing period is much later in the year than that of the remaining populations of Saiga tatarica tatarica in Kazakhstan and Kalmykia. Although the Mongolian Saiga have been legally protected, in reality there is not much protection effect registered by now, possibly because of budget shortage as everywhere in the country.

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Distribution of Mongolian saiga

A map of saiga distribution of Mongolia was at first determined by Russian scientist Bannikov, A.G. in 1954. According to his report, north border of the saiga distribution was front slope of Khan Khokhii mountain, west border was starting from front slope of Kharkhiraa and Altankhokhii mountains then turning into south from longitude 92 and reaching lower part of Khovd river. In the south it had reached Sharga and Khuis Gobi and east border had ranged along Khasagt Khairkhan to the north then reached lower part of Zavkhan River and even to Khan Khokhii mountain range. The Mongolian saiga were seen nearby the lakes of Orog, Biger, Boon tsagaan and south part of Uvs lake in their migration (Bannikov, 1954; Sokolov and Jirnov, 1998).

Unfortunately, Mongolian saiga disappeared in Uvs lake depression in 1920s, in depression of Khyargas and Airag lakes in 1960s and in basins of Dorgon, Khar Nuur lakes and lower part of Zavkhan river in 1960s (Dulamtseren and Amgalan, 1993).

As noted in the Bannikov’s map, size of distribution habitat was approximately 40,000 square km. If O.Shagdarsuren had reported in 1970s that the saiga was expanding its old habitat in Sharga and Khuis Gobi, in 1978 Sokolov V.E. had said that its habitat was decreasing to 4,000-5,000 square km. As a result of the enumeration by Sapojnikov G.N. in Sharga Gobi in August, 1982 it was determined that the saigas own 1,100 square km. It was determined by S. Dulamtseren’s survey done in period of 1980-1989 that the saiga were locating in strip area of 2,000 square km, 250 km long, 5-30 km wide. According to surveys done after the time, Mongolian-German joint scientists said in 1994 that the saiga habitat was 3,400 square km but experts of Mongolia-Russian joint biological expedition said in 1997 that the saiga habitat in Sharga gobi was 3,400 square km and in Khuis gobi-1,900 square km

If conclude the above scientists reports, since 1990 the population of Mongolian saiga has been locating an area stretched from back part of Mongol Altai to front slope of Darvi mountain range in the north and from Ikhes lake to Boor depression in the east direction.

In late 1980s and early 1990s the Mongolian saiga tended to expand its habitat and started to migrate to Khuis Gobi in two routes. For example, the two migrating routes met each other in southern part of Khuis Gobi. The new route was in direction of Bayan-Ondor mountain through territory of Bayan bag of Darvi soum, Khovd aimag and came to the gobi through east end of Darvi mountain, spring of Baachuu, small ranges of Eelt, Bor, territory of Sharga soum of Gobi-Altai aimag. At present, the saiga accustomed to live in Khuis gobi around the year and even it is seen in Dorgon steppe, shores of Dorgon and Khar lakes in the northwest coming through Tavan khairkhan steppe.

The range of Mongolian Saiga, (S.tatarica mongolica), once occurred over a large area of the semi-desert zone in western Mongolia, has greatly contracted, but they are threatened with disappearance in Mongolia. The current range of Mongolian Saiga is only 20% of the original, and consists of two parts. In 1994, the Saiga reserve “Sharga-Mankhan” consisting of two separated areas, 2000 sq. km in the Shargyn Gobi semi-desert basin and 200 sq. km in Mankhan district, between lake Khar Us Nuur and the foothills of the Altai was established for protection and conservation of the last two populations in these areas. According to Mongolian scientists of the Academy of Sciences, last years, the Mongolian Saiga habitat is expanding to Huisiin Gobi, to the north of Sharga depression.

As a result of the 1998 winter counting the saiga habitat was estimated in total 10,150 square km, including 3,700 square km in Sharga and 6,450 square km in Khuis Gobi (Amgalan and others, 1999).

Mankhan population is located in small area of 20 and 30 km in back foothills of Mongol Altai mountain range, which is 1,200-1,800 meter high above sea level. The main location is Ooshiin khodoo, mouth of Tsagaan burgas, Onts hill, end of Tsenkher rivers, foothill of Ongot khar mountain, steppe of Suujiin us, well of Tasarkhai and Shar hill (Dulamtseren and Amgalan, 1993). This population lives in its small limited habitat isolating from herding families and auto vechicle movements. This population almost lost its ability to survive in the nature and is endangered (Dulamtseren and Amgalan, 1993).

As result of the Saiga census in December 2000, Mongolian Saiga is preserved in Shargiin Gobi (4100 square km), Khuisiin Gobi (5925 square km) , Durgun steppe of Chandmani soum (2930 square km) and Mankhan (420 square km), in area of about 13375 km2, and the number has increased up to about 5200 individuals. (Amgalan and others, 2000).

The reason the saiga habitat increase may be explained by: 1. comparably favourable climate condition in last decade, 2. raised trend of number, 3. running away from human activity and auto vehicle movement, 4. Increased movement for nice pasture and calm area. Taking all side measures to provide the saiga with calm condition in an area in which the saiga has been coming back, is becoming the most actual problem.

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Population size

Number fluctuation of the Mongolian saiga is clearly observable with comparison of previous survey reports. It is determined that there were about 700 saigas in Sharga Gobi in 1976 after reviewing all survey reports done since 1960s. After this determination the saiga numbers were 300 in 1978 (Sokolov and others), 600-750 in 1981 (Lushekina and others 1997), 750-1,600 in period of 1982-1989 on the basis of annual counting (Dulamtseren, 1992) and 1,400 by 1993 counting (Dulamtseren and Tulgat, 1993). In Sharga Gobi population of over 1,600 saigas was in 1994 by counting of Mongolian-German joint researchers and while it was decreased in August 1997 to 860 saiga by counting of Mongolian-Russian joint biological expedition. Latter expedition determined that 200 saiga are in Khuis Gobi (Amgalan 1994, Lushekina and others 1997).

The Mankhan population had over 130 saiga in 1982. But due to harsh winter in 1983-1984 less than 30 survived and it increased in 1993 up to 70. But it again decreased afterward to 44-48 in 1998 (Badrakh 1993, Shar 1998).

According to survey in November, December, 1998, there are 2,100 saiga by accounting density of 5.6 head per 1,000 hectare in Sharga gobi and 850 saiga by accounting density of 1.3 head per 1,000 hectare in Khuis gobi and in total of 2,950 head saiga by accounting density of 2.9 animal per 1,000 hectare in both areas.

According the survey in December 2000, there are 3310 saigas by accounting density of 7.9 head per 1000 hectare in Shargiin gobi, 1825 saigas by accounting density of 2.8 head per 1000 hectare in Khuisiin gobi, 110 saiga by accounting density of 0.3 head per 1000 hectare in Durgun steppe, 40 saiga by accounting density of 0.9 head per 1000 hectare in Mankhan area

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Existing problems

Among factors affecting the abundance of the Mongolian saiga, besides unfavourable weather conditions and food shortage, there is a significant mortality (higher in males than in females) as a result of illegal hunting. In recent years, during the transition to a market economy in Mongolia, there has been increased illegal hunting to supply the saiga horn trade, which are valued in Chinese medicine, and to a lesser extend for their meat. This will inevitably lead to a further reduction of saiga distribution and abundance. The potential losses that poachers could inflict in saiga populations, but it is very difficult to obtain reliable information in illegal saiga hunting from local people.

Another threat to the survival of saiga is competition with domestic animals. According to the local administration, during recent decades, the whole area of the Mongolian saiga population has always been used as pasture for domestic animals, but on a moderate scale. We found that a considerable increase in numbers of livestock in recent years and competition for pasture with domestic animals could affect the survival prospects for the Mongolian Saiga, particularly if the desertification of this region continues.

Furthermore the extreme weather conditions such as long lasting summer droughts, harsh winters are permanent threats to the population of Saiga. Abnormally low temperatures, high snowfall and blizzards are all implicated in winter mortality that can lead to mass starvation of Mongolian Saiga, in this special case to global extinction at all. Eregdendagvaa (1954) observed that during summer droughts, Mongolian saiga usually migrated from the Shargyn Gobi northwest across the Khuisiin Gobi to the Great Lakes basin. This appeared to happen also in 1997, when no rain fell between the spring and the end of August. Wolf and fox predation also account for significant losses of both young and adults. Young saigas are also attacked by predatory birds (for example golden eagle Aquila chrysaetos and tawny eagle Aquila rapax).

Besides, the intensively frequented main road in Western Mongolia (Khovd Aimag) , the transit road to China through the Mankhan habitat of the small population numbered in 30-50 individuals.

Despite the studies on Mongolian Saiga carried out in the 80’s, gap of knowledge is still remarkable for an effective conservation of Mongolian Saiga. There is lack of basic information on biological and population ecological data such as infant survival rate, regional caused population significance, optimal age and sex ratio within the population and on recruitment also on competition caused by livestock and diseases.

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What should be done for conservation

Further it should be conducted biotop analyses and identified ecological requirements, such as investigation of vegetation diversity, cover degree and food plant biomass production etc. Treatment and solution of these issues and problems should be the most important prerequisite for elaborating of an effective management and monitoring plan simultaneously for the required conservation of the last remained population of Mongolian Saiga.

It becomes of vital importance to enhance the long-term in survival prospects of Saiga by improving the management of its present habitat in Altai-Sayan in Western Mongolia, and providing adequate training to the Saiga reserve staff, and also to encourage community participation in reserve, for combating against poaching.

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