By John R. Platt
Well it’s about time I had some success to report about the saiga (Saiga tatarica), the critically endangered antelope species native to Kazakhstan and nearby countries in central Asia. Just a few decades ago saiga populations numbered in the millions. The fall of the Soviet Union brought uncontrolled poaching across the saiga’s range, and 95 percent of the animals were slaughtered for their meat and horns, which are used in traditional Chinese medicine. By 2010, the first year I wrote about the saiga, the total population had fallen to an estimated 81,000 animals in five isolated populations.
But 2010 was the first of three disastrous years for the saiga. That year, 12,000 saiga died in Kazakhstan from pasteurellosis, an infection that afflicts the lungs. Another mass die-off occurred exactly one year later, this time claiming 450 animals. One year later it happened again. That time nearly 1,000 saiga were found dead from pasteurellosis—although some people actually blamed a Soyuz capsule returning a crew from the International Space Station that had recently landed nearby.
After three deadly years I did not expect this week’s report: the Kazakh government now says that its country’s saiga population has increased to 137,000 animals, more than double what it had been five years ago. In a statement, the Kazakh Ministry of Environmental Protection credited the increase with an international memorandum signed by Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Mongolia to preserve saiga habitat and grow their populations. As part of that agreement, Kazakhstan has taken some efforts to reduce the impact of new roads and other infrastructure in saiga habitat. That has apparently helped the antelopes to migrate and increased their access to food and water during key breeding seasons, and that has been more than enough to offset the three mass die-offs. More....