July 12, 2004 July 6, 2004 -- Urgent action is needed if the saiga antelope is to be saved from extinction, according to an international team of researchers reporting their first year findings today.
The latest population surveys in Kazakhstan have found that the saigas did not form a cluster to give birth this year in their former stronghold in Ustiurt, west Kazakhstan. Researchers are blaming widespread poaching, which continues despite the Kazakhstan government's commitment to saiga conservation.
The saiga antelope is one of the World Conservation Union's most critically endangered species. Over the last decade, numbers have declined by over 95% - from around a million in the early 1990s to just 21,000 in Kazakhstan and 750 in Mongolia today.
Imperial College London is working with partners Fauna and Flora International and the World Conservation Union (IUCN) in the UK, the Institute of Zoology in Kazakhstan, and the Institute of Ecology and Evolution in the Russian Republic of Kalmykia to ensure the survival of this species.
The group is lobbying for the ratification of the Memorandum of Understanding and action plan for saiga conservation drawn up by the Convention on Migratory Species in 2002. It is also calling for the establishment of captive breeding centres and protected areas for the saiga, as well as an increase in the number of mobile anti-poaching units and more effective enforcement of anti-hunting laws.
The UK team's work to save the species is focusing on both the reproductive biology of saiga antelopes and the role of hunting in villages local to their habitat. Project leader Eleanor Milner-Gulland of Imperial says:
"Although we discovered that local people are well aware of the risks to the saiga and are strongly committed to supporting conservation efforts, our initial research found that poaching is still rife and well-organised.
"There is still a relatively healthy population of saigas breeding within Kalmykias Chernye Zemli Biosphere Reserve, and we are working with the authorities to strengthen the capacity of this reserve to protect the species."
Hunting is the main cause of the saiga's decline, both for meat and for the horn, which is used in traditional Chinese medicine. The break-up of the Soviet Union added to this problem, leading to a shortage of funding for agencies protecting the antelope and also an opening up of borders with China that facilitates the trade in saiga horns.
Research led by Dr Milner-Gulland published in March 2003 revealed that selective hunting of the male saiga for its horns has caused females to outnumber males by a ratio of 100:1.
"The saiga is an important species for the steppe ecosystem because it is the only large wild herbivore that grazes there," she adds."It is also a national emblem in many parts of its habitat, and has a strong connection to the nomadic history of the Central Asian peoples - a connection that is now at risk."
Funding for research to conserve the saiga antelope is provided by the UK Government's Darwin Initiative, which has committed £150,000 over three years. The Kazakh government has also committed funding of $800,000 this year to protect the species.
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