Exclusive from New Scientist Print
13 February 2003
An antelope that just a decade ago crammed the steppes of central Asia is
this spring on the verge of extinction, victim of an epidemic of poaching.
Biologists say it is the most sudden and dramatic population crash of a large
mammal ever seen.
In 1993, over a million saiga antelopes roamed the steppes of Russia and
Kazakhstan. Today, fewer than 30,000 remain, most of them females. So many
males have been shot for their horns, which are exported to China to be used
in traditional fever cures, that the antelope may not be able to recover
The slaughter is embarrassing for conservationists. In the early
1990s, groups such as WWF actively encouraged the saiga hunt, promoting
its horn as an
alternative to the horn of the endangered rhino.
Saiga (Saiga tatarica)
once dominated the open steppes from Ukraine to Mongolia. They
have always been hunted for meat, horns and skins. However,
Soviet times, hunters killed tens of thousands each year, without dramatically
lowering the population.
But since the collapse of the Soviet Union, a lucrative
market in the horns has opened up, with hunters using motorcycles
and high-powered weapons
to chase and kill their quarry. In China, saiga horns fetch around $100
Organised gangs illegally export the horn by train from Moscow to Beijing,
or across the border from Kazakhstan.
Black with antelopes
The plains used to be black with these antelopes, but now you can go out
there and not see any at all," says Abigail Entwistle, a zoologist from
Fauna and Flora International, a British-based charity. "This is the
most sudden change in fortune for a large mammal species recorded in recent
Decline of the saiga antelope
The closest comparison may be with the African elephant, which faced
a similar poaching frenzy in the 1980s, causing its numbers to fall from
to half a million in a decade. But the saiga's numbers, which started
a similar level, have fallen by 97 per cent.
The scale of the slaughter,
and its almost total destruction of the male saiga, has overwhelmed
the animals' famed fecundity. "We don't know
of any case in biology where the sex ratio has gone so wrong that fecundity
has crashed in this way," says Eleanor Milner-Gulland of Imperial
College, London, the leading expert in the West on the species.
1993 and 1998, saiga numbers across central Asia almost halved, to
around 600,000. Then, with most of the males gone, the population
in earnest, says Milner-Gulland. Numbers have halved each year since,
until 2001's census recorded just 30,000 individuals. There is, she
sign that the crash is due to disease or unusual weather.
One of the most critically endangered herds is in the huge Betpak-Dala
region in central Kazakhstan, where in 1993 more than half a million
By 2001 their numbers had crashed to just 4000 - a 99 per cent drop
from which there may be no return.
Aerial surveys in 2001 by the Institute of Zoology in Kazakhstan
revealed no adult or juvenile males, only females, says Milner-Gulland.
time is running out to bring extra males in, as saiga antelopes normally
for three to four years.
Conservationists have struggled to keep up
with the scale of the disaster, and did not put the saiga on
the Red List of critically
species until October 2002. In the coming months they will launch
appeal to rescue wild herds.
We think we have probably got just two years to save the species," says
Entwistle. "The trouble is, most people have never heard of the animal,
so it is hard to raise funds."
Confined to zoos
It is unlikely that hunters will drive the saiga to total extinction,
as they did the dodo, quagga and passenger pigeon. But without
a dramatic reversal of its fortunes, it will soon be confined to
and a few
A decade ago, the saiga antelope seemed so secure that conservationists
fighting to save the rhino from poaching suggested using saiga
horn in traditional Chinese
medicines as a substitute for rhino horn.
Research commissioned by WWF
at the Chinese University of Hong Kong in the late 1980s found
it to be as effective as rhino horn in fighting
fevers, and in 1991
WWF began a campaign in Hong Kong to publicise it as an alternative.
The following year, the UN Environment Programme appointed WWF ecologist
as its "special envoy" to persuade pharmacists across Asia
to adopt saiga horn (New Scientist print edition, 9 March 1991 and
3 October 1992).
But the saiga had died out in China in the 1960s, and
the resulting upsurge in demand opened the floodgates to unregulated
Kong markets were piled high with saiga horn" from Kazakhstan
and Russia. The slaughter had begun.
Bradley Martin is unapologetic.
He told New Scientist: "I supported the
use of saiga antelope horn as a substitute for rhino horn from the
early 1980s. In my opinion it was the correct policy at the time.
But I stopped around 1995,
when I read about the start of the sharp decline in saiga populations."