Efforts to protect the critically endangered saiga antelope have taken another set-back after a goat plague epidemic has killed more than 3,000 of the Mongolia species in the past five months, with researchers fearing the disease could wipe out 80 per cent of the remaining population if it continues to spread at the current rate.
Famed for their spectacular migration and rather unique bulbous snout, the saiga antelope have struggled to survive in the face of disease, rampant poaching and habitat loss across Mongolia, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Poachers are killing scores trapped by border fences and barriers between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. The remaining populations are being split up as Kazakhstan builds thousands of kilometres of roads and railways through the antelopes' habitat to boost trade and access prospective mining areas.
The global saiga antelope population has dropped from 1 million in the 1990s to 120,000. Their promising recovery suffered a tragic blow in 2015 when a major epidemic killed more than 200,000 animals. Recovery of their numbers is further hampered by the demand for the horns of the male saiga in Asia, which has left only one male antelope per ten females.
“Through the common efforts of CMS, governments and NGOs we have managed to pull the Saiga back from the brink of extinction” said Bradnee Chambers, Executive Secretary of the UN Convention on Migratory Species. “By immediately vaccinating livestock and by putting emergency measures in place, we might contain a further spreading of the disease. In addition, a crackdown in poaching and illegal trade and the avoidance of any other man-made barriers should be undertaken to conserve the species in the long term.”
The Mongolian Government took swift action to counter the die-off and pledged 450 million tugrics (roughly $180,000) for disease prevention and related activities. It plans to vaccinate all livestock in the affected regions and buffer zones. So far, 1,052 Mongolian Saiga – about one third of those that have died - have been treated with disinfectant and buried.
But the pledged sum will only last for a month of operations and much more is needed to contain the outbreak. More funds are also needed to collect scientific samples from the carcasses, to monitor and to reintroduce saiga in former areas of distribution.
Saigas are being killed for their meat and horns, highly valued in traditional Asian medicine. Raids against poachers, registration of weapons and vehicles, and providing rangers with appropriate training and equipment are needed to protect the antelope.
Last year, Uzbekistan established the ‘Saigachy’ reserve to protect the antelopes and other unique wildlife. The 7,000 square kilometres of protected area brings hope for a safe haven and a secure passage for saiga migrating to Kazakhstan.
Barriers to migration
A small population of 1,500-5,000 antelopes, living on the Ustyurt Plateau between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan may be soon driven to extinction by habitat fragmentation and poaching. Kazakhstan has recently modified its border fences to allow safe migration, but other barriers, such as roads and railways remain a problem.
Saiga antelopes rarely cross railroad tracks, even if those are unfenced. Scientists believe that the animals are so stressed from poaching, that the movement of a train, or even the sight of railroad tracks, frightens them and creates a psychological barrier they are unwilling to cross.
A new road project, known as the Centre-West road, would cut across the migration path of Kazakhstan’s population and cut off the summer calving areas of the saigas from their main pastures. It would affect what used to be the healthiest and largest population, which was decimated by a mass die‑off in 2015.
The Convention on Migratory Species is discussing with the government of Kazakhstan ways to mitigate or re-rout the parts of the road.