Wildlife & Biodiversity

Miracle on the Steppe: The Saiga has beaten extinction for now, finds new IUCN Red List

Only 6% of the population was left in 2003, a decade after the break-up of the Soviet Union

By Rajat Ghai
Published: Tuesday 12 December 2023
A Saiga herd out on the steppe in Kalmykia, Russia. Photo: iStock

The Saiga, the odd-faced antelope that have roamed the earth since the last Ice Age, can hope to continue gamboling across the vast Eurasian Steppe. That is because on December 11, 2023, the species’ (Saiga tatarica) category was changed from Critically Endangered to Near Threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

“The Saiga has a Medium Conservation Legacy; without past conservation action, the Saiga would likely have gone extinct in one spatial unit, and would have lost viability and functionality in others, resulting in a score of 19 per cent,” the IUCN noted in its latest update.

It added that the positive effects of conservation had, however, been masked somewhat by disease outbreaks. These “have knocked the species back to levels lower than what had been achieved through concerted conservation”.

The global organisation said:

…within a 10-year period, if conservation continues, it is expected that one more spatial unit will become Viable and one more will become Functional; combined with the planned reintroduction to a spatial unit where the species is currently Absent, a score of 52 per cent is expected to be achieved. Finally, within 100 years it would be possible for the Saiga to achieve a score of 52 per cent; while some areas of the indigenous range are unlikely to provide suitable habitat in the long term, where there is suitable habitat it will be possible for the species to become Viable or Functional in many cases. Therefore, the Recovery Potential for the Saiga is Medium.

The Saiga has two sub-species: Saiga tatarica tatarica (found in most of the range) and Saiga tatarica mongolica (found only in Mongolia). The antelope were once found throughout the Eurasian Steppe, the great band of grassland that stretches from Hungary in Europe to Manchuria in Asia.

Today, the animal is found in fragmented populations within Kazakhstan, Mongolia, the Russian Federation and Uzbekistan, according to the Saiga Conservation Alliance (SCA), a network of researchers and conservationists working to protect the Saiga.

“There were an estimated one million saigas in Russia and Central Asia in the early 1990s, but by 2003 their numbers had plummeted, with only six per cent of the population remaining,” the SCA noted in a press statement.

Conservation Efforts

The IUCN update credited “effective national and international conservation efforts” for turning the tide in favour of the Saiga.

“This substantial positive change in global Red List status — a rarity in conservation — reflects the remarkable recovery of Saiga populations in Kazakhstan, which have recovered from a perilously low estimate of just 48,000 in 2005 to now over 1.9 million,” the SCA said in the statement.

The network said: “The Government of Kazakhstan has demonstrated highly commendable leadership in species recovery, investing heavily in a suite of impactful actions including anti-poaching initiatives, robust law enforcement and border control measures, and establishment of a series of major new State Protected Areas”.

It added that the government’s collaboration with civil society had played a crucial role in fostering a collaborative network that incorporated government agencies, conservation practitioners, academics, and international experts.

“…today’s celebration of success is a culmination of everyone’s efforts,” the SCA said.

It also credited the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS) for playing “a crucial role in bringing governments and civil society organisations across the Saiga range together, to agree on and then implement an International Work Programme on the Conservation and Sustainable Use of the Saiga Antelope, in coordination with the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES)”.

Partners have supported governments’ implementation of anti-poaching and law enforcement measures, formally protected key Saiga habitats and monitored populations, as part of the programme.

They have also worked with local communities to raise their awareness of the issues facing Saigas and to form community-led ranger teams.

But the SCA said there was still work to do. “Current population numbers for Saiga in Russia are 38,000, up from 4,500 in 2016, while Uzbekistan hosts an estimated 500 Saiga, c.200 of which were first discovered in the Aral Sea Region in 2021 whilst the remaining 300 are isolated by human-made barriers to migration,” it said.

The Mongolian subspecies numbers 15,540 individuals, according to a November 2023 census. There have been no instances of poaching since 2018, when the population level was 3,391, SCA said.

It added that the species will only be fully recovered if it regains its role in the ecosystem across its entire range, with ongoing poaching, illegal trade, disease, climate change, disturbance and infrastructure development all posing a threat to Saiga.

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