How an infection almost made the saiga extinct
The saiga is a Critically Endangered antelope that was originally found almost all over the Eurasian steppes, from Ukraine and Russia all the way to Mongolia. Today, they can only be found in parts of Russia and Kazakhstan due to illegal taking pressures for their meat and horns.
According to an annual survey in 2015, the total number of saiga in Kazakhstan was around 295,000 (about 90% of the global population), up from 49,000 in 2006. About 242,000 lived in the Betpak-Dala desert region. The increase in the population of this species was thanks to the successful conservation work and initiatives of the government, conservation organizations (such as the Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity of Kazakhstan – ACBK, the BirdLife Partner in that country) and most of all, mobile rangers from the state enterprise Okhotzooprom of the Committee for Forestry and Wildlife of the Ministry of Agriculture.
This successful cooperation to save the species suffered a major setback in May 2015, which saw a mass die-off of the Betpak-Dala saiga population.
The first cases of saiga mortality were observed in the second week of May 2015, when saiga come together for calving (giving birth). By June 5, the number of dead animals had amounted to more than 150,000, not including dead newborn saiga.
An aerial census of the remaining saiga population showed the extent of population decline. Photo: Albert Salemgareev
An additional aerial census showed that only an estimated 33,000 saiga survived in the Betpak-Dala region, which means the total number of dead saiga was much higher (closer to 200,000, more than 80% of the population) and not all carcasses were found. A more exact count of the number of saiga remaining will be done in spring 2016. While such die-offs have happened before, the mortality levels this time are unprecedented.
Analyses of the carcasses and ill animals from the mass die-offs last year led Kazakh infectious disease specialists to believe that the reason for the die-off was haemorrhagic septicemia (a fatal form of the bacterial infection pasteurellosis) according to Sergey Sklyarenko, science director of ACBK and head of the Centre for Conservation Biology.
Protecting and rebuilding
ACBK's work to protect the saiga started in 2006 with the Altyn Dala Conservation Initiative (ADCI), implemented together with the Kazakhstan committee for forestry and wildlife, ministry of agriculture, and ministry of science and education; together with the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, BirdLife in the UK) and FZS (the Frankfurt Zoological Society, Germany).
Its main goal is the conservation and restoration of steppe and semi-desert ecosystems in Central Kazakhstan with healthy populations of native species of animals. The project territory corresponds to the historical range of Betpak-Dala saiga antelope population (about 56 million hectares), a flagship species of the ADCI.
ACBK has undertaken numerous initiatives in the last few years to protect these species. In 2009, two hunting areas were leased by ACBK, covering important habitats of saiga, and hunting on these territories is prohibited. Thus, the areas actually function as reserves.
In the same year, satellite tracking of saigas was introduced, since they are migratory animals. Since then, more than 70 animals have been equipped with collars carrying a satellite transmitter. This allows conservationists to identify migration paths, calving areas, resting places and wintering grounds. The data helps to plan protected areas, for instance the expansion of the Irgiz-Turgay reserve and the country's first ecological corridor Yrgyz-Torgay-Zhylanshyk.
ACBK is carrying out awareness raising programmes to show that all parts of an ecosystem need to function well for nature to be healthy. Photo: Dulat Zhumabek
ACBK is also focused on obtaining more data on saigas’ lifecycles and raising public awareness. A mobile team of ACBK has distributed leaflets and conducted school lessons for children and meetings with adults in the project area of ADCI.
But to more effectively protect the saiga we need to look beyond the species itself. It is still unclear why the bacteria that caused the mass saiga die-off last year turned into dangerous pathogens. Since the reasons of the infection have not yet been determined, efforts need to be directed at researching the bacteria itself and reevaluating the conservation strategy for the saiga to include helping the species adapt to the bacteria.