Sunday, July 01, 2007

Wild Kazakhstan:
The Rise and Fall of the Saiga

This spring brought two news stories about endangered animal species in KZ. One was the massive die-off of Caspian seals (the only mammal in the Caspian Sea), and the other was the creation of an enormous wildlife reserve in NW Kazakhstan, called the Irgiz-Turgay Nature Reserve.

Anybody reading an basic introduction to Kazakhstan might get the impression that there are two kind of wild animals in the entire country: 1) eagles and what they can be trained to hunt (foxes, rabbits & wolves) and 2) snow leopards, with some wild camels here and there for local color. Wikipedia has a better list, but doesn’t have articles for many. Could it be I want it too easy? Where’s my full-color Field Guide to the KZ Steppe? I’ve been interested in the non-human inhabitants of Kazkhstan for a while, so I followed up on the Irgiz-Turgay story to learn more.

The area of the Irgiz-Turgay reserve is home to several endangered species, which is the driving reason for creating the reserve. One of the main species to be protected is the saiga, an ungulate (hooved mammal) that’s somewhere between a sheep and an antelope. It looks like a critter Dr. Seuss would think up, and the story of the saiga is like that of the truffula tree. From millions to rare, back to millions, and now endangered again, in little more than a century.

There’s a fair amount of information available online, but the most comprehensive English-language article I found on the saiga (in Russian, saigak) is in the multi-volume Grzimek’s Encyclopedia of Mammals. Basic saiga facts: Saiga tatarica is the only species in its genus; the closely related saiga borealis became extinct during the Pleistocine era. They are related to, but very distinct from, the mysterious Tibetan antelope also known as the chiru. Zoologists first classified saiga in the goat family, but now they are thought to be a separate species between sheep and antelopes, and placed on the gazelle family tree.

A mature saiga is around 3 to 3.5 ft. (90-100 cm) tall and 3.5-5ft. (120-130cm) long, weighing 45-110 lbs.(21-51kg). Their coats are short, thick & brownish in summer, and in winter saiga sport a 70% shaggier, nearly white woolly coat. Like the platypus, a saiga seems a pastiche of different animals stitched together -- the body of a sheep or goat, legs like a very short deer, neck like some sort of llama, horns of an antelope, and a big moose- or llama-ish head.

The curious-looking head is due to the huge humped nose, which looks something like a short elephant trunk (a ‘proboscis’). Inside that big hump is a very large nasal cavity, which is a fabulous adaptation to the harsh steppe climate. In summer, this nose protects the saiga’s lungs by filtering out airborne dust; in the winter, icy air is pre-warmed before getting to the lungs. Oddly enough, saigas have a terrible sense of smell, but excellent eyesight, able to detect danger over half a mile away. Saiga seasonal migration is unpredictable, varying with the severity of summer and winter weather. When they go, they go all together, thousands at a time, and in a straight line with the direction of the wind, ignoring all dangers.


While the schnoz makes the saiga interesting, it’s the horns on the males that make them valuable. Since the 19th century saiga have been hunted for their horns, which are ground into a powder and used for aphrodesiacs, and as a fever medicine in traditional Chinese medicine. Grzimek’s says nearly 350,000 pairs of the ringed, translucent amber horns were sold in just two Central Asian markets between 1840 & 1850. There are accounts of Kirgiz/Kazakh hunters hunting them with steppe eagles and greyhounds, and deadly spiked ambush corrals, killing up to 12,000 a day. On the verge of total extinction after WWI, the Russian Soviets banned all saiga hunting in 1919 and the Republic of Kazakhstan followed in 1923. In July 1929, a zoological expedition set out from New York to “Siberia and Russian Turkestan” to collect rare specimens, including Siberian tigers and saiga, for the American Museum of Natural History. The New York Times reported in July 1930 that they returned with 3 tigers, 6 saiga, and “400 other specimens of smaller mammals and birds.” I assume they all came back stuffed; a live menagerie of that scale would be a management challenge, to say the least.

The Soviets were serious about preserving the saiga, so between no hunting (and presumably limited poaching) and the saiga’s incredible fertility rates (right up there with rabbits!), the species made an astonishing comeback. By 1958, the number of saiga in Kazakhstan & Kalmykia (Caucasian Russia north of Azerbaizhan, bordering northwest KZ) was estimated at 2 million. The number of saiga doubled, from half a million to a million, in the 5 years between 1966-1971. Saiga are incredibly good at reproducing -- female saigas mature at less than one year old, an average of 90% of females conceive every season, and approximately 75% of all saiga births are twins! Males mature a bit later, and some of the more experienced bucks collapse exhausted after trying to handle all those wanna-be moms.

So what happened? How did a globally-heralded success story turn to critical loss in such a short time? Two events, happening at roughly the same time, accelerated both the supply and the demand for saiga horn. On the supply side was the 1991 demise of the Soviet Union and its tight controls on hunting and poaching, the ensuing urgent need of the people for food and income, and the opening of previously closed borders. The demand side comes with a twist -- by the late 1980s-early 1990s, the saiga population seemed so large and secure that the World Wildlife Fund, and other environmental groups working to save the endangered African Rhino, campaigned in Hong Kong, China and other Asian countries to persuade pharmacists to use saiga horn as an effective alternative to rhino horn. In an ironic example of successful marketing, in 2002 alone, authorities in Kazakhstan confiscated 6 tons of saiga horn -- from approximately 20,000 slaughtered male saiga. One kilo of horn (from 2-4 males) can bring $80, a fortune to a hungry villager. A dramatic visual: as reported in a National Wildlife article, during the harsh winter of 2000, some 80,000 saiga in Russia migrated south from Kalmykia to Dagestan. “Weeks later, only a few animals returned. Witnesses reported that the snow was red with blood from the slaughter.”

The normal saiga gender ratio is 1 male for every 2 to 3 females. But since it’s the mature males who are poachers’ targets, the ratio has become terribly skewed. One 2003 study reported that male saigas comprised only 1% of the population, down from 25% in 1991. And, to make matters worse, it appears that male saiga need to fight other bucks to keep their fertility high. Nobody to fight, fewer babies made. It’s a downward spiral. The total saiga population in Russia, Kazakhstan and Mongolia has dropped 95%, from far more than a million to fewer than 50,000, in only 10 years.

The saiga has developed over thousands of years, surviving and adapting to a the inhospitable steppe environment, probably contributing to human survival in the region. Saiga bones are almost always found in excavations of steppe sites inhabited by early humans. They do not compete with domesticated animals for food, water or pasture -- they eat over 100 different kinds of plants, primarily herbs & shrubs, and get their water from the plants they eat, or from snow. Thirteen percent of their food comes from plants that are toxic to or rejected by domestic herds.

Why devote money and huge amounts of land to preserve this odd creature? One reason is that we simply don’t know what the result of extinction would be. The use of saiga horn as a fever medicine is actually supported by WWF-sponsored research; what other medical uses might be discovered in the future? The role of saiga migration and grazing in the web of steppe ecology isn’t clear. Perhaps they control the growth of toxic plants, or fertilize steppe grasses. If managed well, saiga could be an ongoing food supply for rural inhabitants, and support other steppe animals such as wolves.

Another reason is that extinction could happen in a dramatically short time span. The animal does not adapt well to zoo life, and attempts to re-introduce them to areas where they used to roam are largely unsuccessful. Grzimek’s lists the saiga life span at 6-10 years, while New Scientist claims a life span of only 3-4 years. In either case, the saiga story could be a closed book within a decade.

The establishment of the Irgiz-Turgay nature reserve will create a long swath of protected land across the central Eurasian steppe, from Southern Russia (in Kalmykia’s 121,000 hectare Black Lands Biosphere Reserve) across northwestern Kazakhstan to the area north of the Aral Sea. I can’t find a map showing the boundaries of the reserve area, but Turgay is a town on the border with Russia, while Irgiz is some 650 mi to the east (in Aqtobe region). At 763,549 hectares (almost 3,000 sq. miles), this is almost as big as the US state of Texas. The area includes lakes and wetlands that are important to 100 species of waterbirds, including two other endangered species, the Dalmatian pelican and the white-headed duck. The wetlands of the Ural River delta (where the Ural flows into the Caspian Sea) is nearby (I’m not sure whether it’s included in the new nature reserve) and is an important flyway for other endangered birds. It would be a fascinating location to explore for anyone interested in steppe wildlife.

Intention and a coalition of international NGOs is good, protected land is a start, but Kazakhstan will have to commit money for enforcement of the hunting bans, and for education and marketing. Local communities need to benefit from protecting the natural resources, through sustainable harvesting and the development of eco- tourism, to outweigh the immediate benefits of poaching.

I would love to hear from anyone with more information about the Irgiz-Turgay nature reserve, the overall implementation of the Altyn Dala Conservation initiative (of which the new reserve is a part), or other wildlife areas in Kazakhstan. In the meantime, I will leave you with a final saiga fact -- when sensing danger and beginning to flee, a saiga first jumps into the air a few times to look around before starting off at a gallop.

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Sources:

Grzimek’s Encyclopedia of Mammals. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1990. Vol. 5, p.485-494.
Find Grzimek's in a library near you.

"Kazakhstan: Government Expands Protection of Steppes"- Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 5 April 2007.
"Kazakhstan “steppes” up protection of endangered antelope." - WWF, 27 March 2007.
"Saga of the Saiga." National Wildlife Magazine, April/May 2004 (source of Photo #1 above)
"Rhino rescue plan decimates Asian antelopes." New Scientist, 12 February 2003. (source of Photo #2)
Endangered Species Handbook.
EDGE: Species 62
Williams, Laura. "Kalmykia: Reviving the Dusty Plain." Russian Life, Sep/Oct 2003.

For further reading:
Saiga Conservation Alliance
ARKive.org (information, video & still photos)
Saiga tatarica Fact Sheet at Ultimate Ungulate (source of Photo #3 above)
Biodiversity Conservation Center (photos & video; source of photo #4 to right, by Igor Shpilenok)

1 comment:

susan williams beckhorn said...

Thanks for the great article. I would love to read more about plants and animals of Kazakhstan that would have been present 6000 years ago when horses were first being domesticated to help with research for a sequel to my novel Wind Rider.
Susan Williams
susanwilliamsbooks.com