Endangered antelope rebounds in Kazakhstan, but threats loom

IMAGESImages of Saiga antelopes in Altyn-Dala park in central Kazakhstan. The population of the critically endangered Saiga antelope has more than doubled since 2019, Kazakhstan says, giving conservationists fresh hope for the steppe-dwelling animal’s long-term survival. News that the Central Asian country’s Saiga population rose from 334,000 to 842,000 since the last time an aerial survey was carried out suggests it is continuing to rebound after a massive die-off in 2015.

Dropping to his knees to weigh a spindly-legged newborn saiga antelope, conservationist Albert Salemgareyev finds himself in the midst of the Kazakh steppe’s most important baby boom.

It took his group of experts and volunteers several journeys into the vast, arid grasslands of Kazakhstan before they found the calving ground where a herd of critically endangered antelope had congregated for birthing.

But now it is bouncing back, with authorities hailing protective measures for a creature that survived the Ice Age, only to flirt with extinction several times in the modern era.

The latest aerial surveys of saiga populations in Kazakhstan — where the vast majority of the species is concentrated — showed a growth from 334,000 to 842,000 individuals in the last two years.

Now the Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity of Kazakhstan (ACBK) where Salemgareyev works is seeing encouraging signs throughout its monitoring of the species, including an increase in the proportion of males, whose horns are highly prized in Chinese medicine.

Kazakhstan’s ecology ministry last week called the population boom “an indicator of the effectiveness of measures to conserve saiga populations and counteract poaching”.

– Bolshevik to Soviet era –

But the expansion of poaching at the turn of the 20th century tested the animal’s famous talent for survival.

The Soviet period offered unprecedented protections, first in the form of a three-decade hunting ban and later through strictly enforced quotas that helped push the population up to around two million.

Recent years have seen the government crack down on the practice, toughening legislation and tightening enforcement.

In a testimony to the strength of public sentiment over the murders, one of the two rangers, Yerlan Nurgaliyev, was honoured with a mural on an apartment building in Kazakhstan’s largest city, Almaty, in which he is depicted cuddling a saiga.

The murders marked a turning point as “society began to train its attention on poaching”, with media also covering the problem more, according to Fariza Adilbekova, who serves as national coordinator for the Altyn Dala conservation project at ACBK.

One is a planned 1,300-kilometre (800-mile) highway through pristine steppe and semi-desert in central and western Kazakhstan, cutting across saiga migration routes and potentially causing “disruption and distress” for the species, she said.

A team of scientists that conducted postmortems of antelopes that died in that calving season said in 2018 that the deaths had coincided with excess humidity and higher-than-average daily temperatures on the steppes.

That finding means “concern going forward, given that a climate change-induced increase in temperature is projected for the region over the short to medium term,” the authors wrote at the time.

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