Once widespread across much of the grassy Eurasian steppe region of Mongolia, Russia, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, both the saiga antelope population and range have been shrunk by the twin threats of poaching and the increasing pressures of infrastructure bisecting their migration routes. From an all-time low population of 50,000 at the turn of the century, the saiga’s numbers had been bouncing back. Efforts to protect the main Betpak-Dala herd in Kazakhstan were considered a conservation successes – until disaster struck.
Last May, a contagious bacteria wiped out more than half of the global saiga population. According to Professor EJ Milner-Gulland, Professor of Zoology at the University of Oxford, the disease struck the saiga during the calving season and had a near-100 per cent death rate to the herds it infected.
The cause for the die-off is still unclear. ‘Significant disease-related die-offs are not new events for the saiga,’ says Dr Denise McAloose, Head of Pathology for the Wildlife Conservation Society Health Program. ‘Much smaller but serious die-offs have occurred over the past few decades.’
‘The saiga is an animal that lives on the edge – it has high birth rates and often similarly high death rates,’ Professor Milner-Gulland tells Geographical. ‘The real question is what caused the calving mothers to be stressed to the point of vulnerability to bacterial diseases. Possible changes in the weather of 2015 is one of many lines of enquiry.’
The saiga’s bounce back in recent years allows the experts to be constructively optimistic. ‘We know that the species is capable of restablishing itself,’ says Milner-Gulland, ‘however, in terms of our conservation efforts, we have learned not put all our eggs in one basket, or all our hope in one population of saiga. The focus needs to turn to the re-establishing and protection of other herds, such as the Ustiurt and Russian populations.’