Saiga antelope is making a comeback

Saiga antelope

A young male Saiga in central Kazakhstan – this is where the population has recovered the most. © Daniel Rosengren/ZGF

The latest update to the Red List of Endangered Species actually contains a lot of bad news as well as some good news. Among other things, the saiga antelope, which is widespread in the Eurasian steppes, is no longer officially threatened with extinction, but is only “potentially endangered”. This comeback is mainly due to extensive conservation efforts in Kazakhstan, where the antelope population has increased almost fifty-fold since 2005.

Since 1963, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) has published an updated version of its Red List of Threatened Species every year. In it, it records in various categories how seriously the individual animal and plant species are currently endangered and which of them are already extinct. As in previous years, the current update is full of bad news for species conservation, but there are exceptions.

Saigas on the verge of extinction

One of the big winners in the latest Red List is the saiga antelope (Saiga tatarica), native to Eurasian steppes. It lived here during the last Ice Age, but unlike the woolly mammoth and saber-toothed cat, it has also made the leap into modern times. Their characteristic feature is the puffed-up, bumpy nose that forms a short trunk. In winter, this helps to warm up the icy air we breathe before it enters the lungs. In summer, the animals use their large nasal mucosa to cool down their blood and thus protect themselves from overheating. Saiga antelopes are native to Kazakhstan, Russia, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. They play a key role in the steppes there because, as selective grazers, they trim the vegetation and distribute nutrients with their droppings, thereby promoting the biological diversity of their habitat.

But where millions of saiga antelopes once roamed the steppe, by the early 2000s only a few tens of thousands remained. The reasons for this decline are complex but are probably related to the collapse of the former Soviet Union. Since then, large-scale poaching has raged in the region for decades, targeting both the saiga's meat and their prized horns. Because these are considered an important ingredient in traditional Asian medicine. In addition, there was the construction of roads and settlements, which greatly fragmented the animals' habitat. All of these factors ultimately led to the saigas being listed as “critically endangered” on the Red List.

Return in record time

But with the latest update to the red list, the status of the saigas has also changed. They are now no longer considered threatened with extinction, but only as “potentially endangered”. This is a big step, because there are two more categories between this and the previous category: “endangered” and “endangered”. This category jump is primarily due to the recovery of antelope populations in Kazakhstan. While only around 39,000 animals lived there in 2005, there are now over 1.9 million again. “This is one of the most successful recoveries of a land mammal ever recorded. It shows how effective nature conservation can be when everyone involved works together with a strong mission and sufficient resources,” says Vera Voronova, executive director of the Kazakh nature conservation organization ACBK.

Together with numerous national and international partners as well as funds from the Kazakh government, the organization has been able to support many species protection measures since 2005. Among other things, there have since been some initiatives to combat saiga poaching and tougher law enforcement and border control measures. Since then, several state protected areas have been created with a total area of ​​over five million hectares. But even if the populations were able to recover through the various measures, the new classification as “potentially endangered” still does not mean that the saigas are out of the woods. “We must ensure that protective measures are expanded in Kazakhstan and neighboring countries,” said Voronova. Otherwise the status of the animals could quickly deteriorate again.

Source: Frankfurt Zoological Society from 1858 eV

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