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Proceedings of the International Workshop,
Elista, Republic of Kalmykia, Russian Federation,
2327 June 2004.
UNESCOMAB Drylands Series, No. 4,
p. 163-166

The saiga antelope in the drylands of Russia and how to ensure its sustainable future

Yury Arylov,The Centre for Wild Animals of the Republic of Kalmykia, Kalmykia, Russia;
Anna Lushchekina and Valery Neronov, Russian MAB Committee, Moscow

During the Quaternary, when most of the Northern Hemisphere was covered by tundra-steppe, immense herds of saiga antelope, together with woolly mammoths, used the available plant resources of a far more extensive territory than the saigas present range. Fossil bones, not so different from the modern species, have been found in deposits scattered from the British Isles all the way to Alaska, and from the northwest territories of Canada to the New Siberian Islands to the north and the Pre-Caucasus region to the south.Two subspecies of the saiga are currently recognized: Saiga tatarica mongolica, which inhabits the small steppe area in Mongolia, and Saiga tatarica tatarica, which occupies the vast plains of Central Asia and the Pre-Caspian region. Their massive seasonal migrations have been described, particularly those of Saiga tatarica tatarica.

The nominative subspecies of saiga antelope is a unique form of nomadic ungulate that once regularly migrated over hundreds of kilometres of grassland habitat. In the course of its evolution this subspecies became very well adapted to the harsh and unpredictable conditions of an extreme environment. Despite its rather sheep-like body, the saiga antelope is one of the fastest terrestrial vertebrates, capable of reaching speeds of up to 80 km per hour. The saigas most notable external feature is the presence of a curved, trunk-like nose, which apparently evolved for air filtering and thermoregulation during hot, dusty summers and ice-cold winters. Individual saigas have a short life span, and the adults have high reproductive rates, with adaptations that allow for rapid demographic recovery following particularly severe climatic episodes. The males are crowned with a pair of waxy, light yellow horns, which they use as effective weapons. Unfortunately, however, these horns are a valued commodity in the Chinese traditional medicine market; records of exports that passed through the customs office of Kjakhta (Transbaikalia) indicate that 3.95 million horns were exported to China during the 1800s alone.

By the 1920s, over-harvesting had almost completely eliminated the saiga from most of their range. Intensive hunting and the development of steppe lands in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries reduced global saiga populations to only a few hundred. For seventy years, the Soviet Unions closed borders supported the antelope population by cutting off international trade routes. Saiga hunting was banned from 1919 until the 1950s, allowing numbers to recover to nearly 2 million, and bringing the antelope from a position of near extinction to the most numerous ungulate in the Soviet Union. This amazing recovery was in part due to the animals high fecundity: saiga females begin breeding in the first year of life and give birth to their first calf in the second year. Older females are capable of producing two and even three calves per year.

Three populations of S. t. tatarica are known in Central Asia: the Ural, the Ust-Urt and the Betpakdala populations, in addition to one European population in the Pre-Caspian region. It is possible that some herds from Ust-Urt in Kazakhstan also migrate to adjacent territories of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Saiga herds of the European population may migrate from Kalmykia to Daghestan and other adjacent territories in Russia. In the particularly harsh winter of 19989, a herd of 80,000 migrated into Daghestan in search of food. A few weeks later, only a few small groups returned. Witnesses in Daghestan reported that the snow was red with blood from the slaughter of saiga by poachers.

Between 1980 and 1994, total saiga numbers fluctuated between 670,000 and 1,251,000 individuals. In the same period,single population estimates were as follows: European population, 142,000 to 430,000; Ural population, 40,000 to 298,000; Ust-Urt population, 140,000 to 265,000; and Betpakdala population, 250,000 to 510,000 individuals. All four S. t. tatarica populations experienced severe population declines after 1998. The annual rate of population decline during 19989 was roughly 35 per cent, reaching a dramatic 56 per cent drop during 19992000. The 2004 census revealed the numbers as 15,000 European, 15,000 UstUrt, 8,800 Ural and 6,900 Betpakdala saiga (A. Bekenov, personal communication).

Saiga aggregations vary in size throughout the year. Larger herds are recorded during the reproductive season, but can also be observed in other periods of the year. During the winter, large herds are better able to break through the superficial layer of snow and reach the forage they need. During the summer, large herds may offer individuals temporary relief from massive attacks by blood-sucking insects. Most importantly, large herds offer better protection and early warning against predators, particularly the wolves that are common in many regions of the Eurasian steppes.

Since the early 1980s, saiga populations have suffered from illegal poaching and trade, and from habitat degradation and other forms of environmental disturbance. The demographic effects of periodic summer droughts, occasional severe winters, the spread of some diseases and pressure of predators have been magnified by largescale hunting with dramatic results for the majority of herds. Hunting, and particularly poaching, are connected with a demand for saiga horns for the Chinese traditional medicine market. Such trade through open frontiers was a source of hard currency for a number of people involved in this illegal business. More recently in Russia, against the background of a drastic decline in livestock farming, saigas have been targeted for meat consumption, and this has added to the overall pressure on wild populations.

Now, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, the saigas range within the northwest Pre-Caspian region has shrunk considerably. Not so long ago many thousands of herds of this unique animal moved freely across grassland habitats in the territory of the Republic of Kalmykia and the Astrakhan oblast, and they could sometimes be found in the Rostov and Volgograd oblasts. In the cold and persistent snowy winters of the mid-1980s, they were seen within 10 or 15 km of Astrakhan city. Today it is very rare to see saiga even in the remotest parts of the steppe, and thus there is a general lack of information about their migrations. The reasons for the decline are numerous, but the development of agriculture, particularly the construction of irrigation channels, had a major impact on saiga numbers and nomadic behaviour.

On the eve of the Great October Revolution, sheep comprised about two-thirds of the entire livestock population in the northwest Pre-Caspian region, followed by cattle (c. 20 per cent) and horses (c. 13 per cent). During the 1920s, the proportion of sheep grew to 74 per cent, while those of cattle and horses dropped to 16 per cent and 7.5 per cent respectively. The collectivization drive of the 1930s furthered this tendency a little, by pushing sheep numbers up, and horses down, a few per cent more. But it was during the 1960s that Kalmykia was subjected to the most dramatic changes in the structure of its livestock population since the advent of Soviet power: in just one decade, the proportion of sheep reached 85 per cent or more, while the horses sank below 1 per cent.

The unprecedented explosion of sheep in the area (a rise in the 1960s to 2 million head, over twice the population in the 1950s) soon led to forage deficits, which provoked haphazard attempts to improve natural pastures by turning them into fields to cultivate more fodder. During the 1960s, Kalmykia saw over 150,000 hectares of its pastureland ploughed up in pursuit of this goal; by the early 1970s, every bit of this land had been destroyed by wind erosion, to the point of having no vegetation whatsoever. Of course, this resulted in the fragmentation of the saiga range, competition for forage with livestock and the isolation of some sub-populations.

For example, Sarpa Depression with its many lakes was a preferred site for the saiga, especially in the spring when lush ephemeral plants would grow, and was where female saiga preferred to give birth. In the early 1960s the construction of the Sarpa Irrigation Facilities largely cut them off from the area. In 19812, the Sarpinskaya and Chernozemelskaya irrigation systems were brought into operation. The total length of the systems is about 500 km and the area of irrigated lands amounts to about 62,000 hectares. As a result the saiga range decreased to 20,00023,000 km. and the number of animals counted at that time was about 160,000200,000 (in 19778 there had been 600,000700,000).

The boom in economic reconstruction in the region was growing at a frenetic pace. In the late 1970s, the Sarpa Depression saw the launch of a new irrigation project, the KalmykAstrakhan Facilities, intended to transform the area into a rice-growing region. While this huge development was rapidly devouring what was left of the saigas favourite spring pastures, the remaining steppe tracts in the western parts of Kalmykia and adjacent provinces were turned into a uniform mass of ploughed fields, interrupted only by newly-built canals and roads. As a result, the usual summer retreats of the saiga in areas such as the Ergeni Heights and the Kuma-Manych Interfluve were practically eliminated.

Construction of the VolgaChograi Canal, 80 km of which was 20 m deep, began in the second half of the 1980s, and also brought changes in patterns of migration routes and in saiga numbers. The impact of this huge canal, if it had been completed, would have further decreased the range and numbers of saiga. Fortunately, the construction of the canal was stopped and only the very steep slopes of the 80-km canal portion remind us of this pointless project.

The development of irrigated agriculture in these regions,coupled with the building of artificial waterways and reservoirs to improve the quality of natural pastures in the drier central and southern parts of Kalmykia, affected the saiga population in a number of ways. Apart from depriving them of important habitats, irrigation facilities created additional sources of drinking water and the saiga became less likely to migrate; since they remained in the same vicinity in large numbers, the nearby pastures were increasingly overgrazed. Furthermore, an expanding network of water distribution channels (which eventually reached a total of over 1,300 km) vastly impaired their seasonal migrations. Built without heed to the animals existence, irrigation trenches are known to have caused heavy casualties among the saiga, mostly among the newborns accompanying their mothers en route from the birth sites. In May 1977 for example, over 14,000 saiga, most of them calves only three to ten days old,were found dead along a 5-km stretch of an irrigation trench in central Kalmykia, having failed to make it through the water that was being pumped into its bed as they tried to cross it.

As the irrigation network grew more and more dense, so too did the network of transportation routes. In 1960, the total length of paved roads in Kalmykia had been a mere 100 km; by 1986, it was 1,604 km. Like canals, the roads increasingly hampered the animals migrations and became a major cause of their decline. The Volga River had not previously been a barrier to migrating herds, which had crossed this very large river when it was frozen. Following the construction of many dams, however, and changes in the water regime, the lower stream of the river no longer freezes even during severe winters.

Our observations and interviews with local people and the staff of various conservation organizations revealed the radical changes in the migrations of the saiga population in the territory of the northwest Pre- Caspian region (the left and right banks of the Volga river). During 2002, two herds (600 and 1,000 animals) were observed migrating from Kazakhstan to the Astrakhan oblast. These two herds spent two to three days in Russian territory and later returned to Kazakhstan. Several small groups (five to ten animals) of saigas at the south part of the Astrakhan oblast were also observed.

In the northwest Pre-Caspian region, saiga concentrate at more or less safe zones: Chernyje Zemli Biosphere Reserve (Kalmykia) and the Stepnoi Reserve (Astrakhan oblast). Minor movements, which can hardly be termed real migrations, have a circular character. Poaching and wild fires could very often trigger such nomadic roaming from place to place. In August 2002, for the first time in ten years, several herds (totalling more than 5,000 animals) migrated over long distances (about 150 km) from the southeast to the north. These herds returned in October 2002 but unfortunately, due to poaching, they lost a considerable number of adult males. According to data from the Department of Hunting Management, no more that 0.4 per cent of adult males survived in the European population of saiga that autumn.

In 1995 heightened international awareness of the plight of the saiga led to its listing in Appendix II of the CITES Treaty, and it was also listed in Appendix II of the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS) during the Seventh Conference of the Parties in 2002, in accordance with a proposal submitted by Uzbekistan. In 2002, the Species Survival Commission of the IUCN listed the saiga as a critically endangered species in its Red List of Threatened Animals.

Conservation measures are very necessary at this time and must include special protected areas for lambing and rutting dispersed throughout the entire range where the saiga migrate. Special attention should also be given to protecting the most suitable places along migration routes.Protecting the saiga habitat has been an important step in conserving Kalmykias saiga population. In 1990, more than 90,000 ha in eastern Kalmykia were included in the Chernyje Zemli Biosphere Reserve.Three other sanctuaries with lower levels of protection were also established, restricting land use and access by motorized vehicles.These areas provide the saiga with refuge during the calving period in May, when more than 70 per cent of the European population gathers in the protected areas to give birth, and here they are relatively safe from poachers. Yet Kalmykias existing protected areas cannot ensure that the saiga are safe, and they need to be improved.The problem is not only that they cover too small a portion of the animals range but that they are also fixed in space, while the animals are not. Ideally, thirty times more land should be protected to safeguard the saigas main migration routes. Highways and railroads, canals, fences, pipelines and poachers create obstacles to saiga movements, and it is absolutely necessary to establish ecological corridors between protected areas. In some cases it will be necessary to restore the previous capacity of pastures within the saiga range. Given that poaching for domestic consumption is now a major threat, anti-poaching measures should be strengthened, together with those aimed at curbing the international trade in saiga horns. Captive breeding must also be considered seriously among the many conservation actions that need to be taken to ensure the long-term survival of the saiga antelope.

To save the species, special protection should now be organized, including areas for lambing and rutting and migration routes between winter and summer grounds. Some surveys to justify the optimal scheme of saiga conservation in the Pre-Caspian region have been conducted and relevant recommendations have been passed to decision makers.Yashkul district administration special saiga breeding centre was established with support from the government of the Republic of Kalmykia. The centre now has a reasonable stock of saigas and there are preparations to release adult males into the wild.

At one time, pastures within the Chernyje Zemli ecoregion in the Republic of Kalmykia were used by large herds of livestock and of saiga. As a result of inappropriate management in the latter half of the twentieth century, these pastures have been degraded and many foci of desertification appeared in this area. It is believed that the degradation of pastures has been caused by a large number of Merino sheep which have morphological and behavioural features unsuitable for grazing on poor dryland sand pastures all year around. Many traditional breeds of livestock reared in the territory of the Republic of Kalmykia before the Second World War disappeared during the mass deportation of Kalmyks to Siberia in 1943. As mentioned above, after Perestroika, when the number of livestock in pastures declined drastically, the local people turned their attention to wildlife and the resultant poaching reduced the number of saigas to a critical level.

Currently there are also attempts, supported by the Government of the Republic of Kalmykia, to restore traditional animal husbandry and some of the muttonwool fat-tail sheep originally raised by the Kalmyks have been imported from Mongolia and China for this purpose. As previously mentioned, sheep and saigas shared the same pastures within the Chernyje Zemli ecoregion, and according to the available literature there was no competition between them. In order to preserve the saigas gene pool, the government of the Republic of Kalmykia has given the Centre for Wild Animals of Kalmykia (one of the active partners for implementing the Darwin Initiative project) 800 hectares of land in Yashkul district (near Ermeli settlement) with good natural pastures for the construction of enclosures to start a programme of breeding saiga in captivity. The Ermeli breeding centre now has a good number of saigas of different ages, several enclosures have been fenced, a laboratory has been build and a permanent water and energy supply (including power from renewable resources) has been installed. A lot more land belonging to this centre is available for grazing and haymaking. Nearby there are some villages promoting traditional husbandry and sustainable exploitation of the saiga. Ideally, a model farm could be established that would produce (using traditional technologies) milk products, wool, meat and also handicrafts as an additional income for rural people within the saiga range.

Numerous ecotourists and groups of students/ schoolchildren visiting the centre would be good customers for such products. In cooperation with the centre, and using its enclosures, it will be possible to conduct experiments on the rational use of pasture capacity by livestock and saigas to prevent in future the desertification that occurred previously.To create the model farm it will be necessary to purchase some pure-bred fat-tail sheep and Kalmyk cattle breeds, as well as equipment for producing cheese, brynza and other milk products, and handicraft equipment for making souvenirs from local materials. The success of the farm should encourage rural people in neighbouring areas and provide know-how to apply in their own lives in order to improve their living standards. Such combined experience of saiga breeding and traditional sheep and cattle husbandry with intensive use of fenced pastures should help both to promote saiga conservation and to provide people with additional income.

The following goals should be set:

  • Promote optimal range management with use of wild animals and traditional breeds of domestic animals that are well adapted to local conditions.
  • Evaluate the capacity of different pastures under different loads of saiga and livestock.The data can be used for other areas in similar condition to prevent the risk of desertification.
  • Conserve the cultural heritage of the Kalmyk peoples and promote ecological education through use of traditional handicrafts for producing souvenirs, skills which are practically non-existent today.
  • Help to solve the problems of unemployment and improve living standards in rural areas of the Chernyje Zemli ecoregion as the main habitat of saiga.


We would like to express our gratitude for the generous help we received in conducting surveys on the saiga, its conservation measures and public awareness activities in the territory of the Republic of Kalmykia from organizations such as RBRF (03-04-48457), DBS RAS, the Darwin Initiative Using saiga antelope conservation to improve rural livelihoods, INTAS (03-51-3579), PTES, LHF, Denver Zoological Society, Chicago Zoological Society, and IGF.

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