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Saiga antelopes have increased 10-fold after mass die-off in 2015

More than a million large-nose antelopes now roam the Kazakhstan steppe, a big rebound from the 130,000 animals left after a fatal bacterial disease killed half of the population

Life 12 August 2022

New Scientist Default Image

Copyright: Rob Field / RSPB

Rob Field / RSPB

Saiga antelopes have rebounded after being hunted to the brink of extinction less than two decades ago and sustaining huge losses to disease in 2015. An estimated 1.3 million saiga now roam the vast steppe grasslands of Kazakhstan, a 30-fold increase from their population of less than 40,000 in 2005.

“I went [to the Kazakh steppe] in 2006 and we saw maybe seven saiga in a week,” says Mark Day, who leads the Kazakh Steppe Conservation Programme at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB). “Now, all you hear is this mooing sound. You’re surrounded by tens of thousands of saiga. It is an amazing transformation.”

Millions of these antelopes once grazed alongside woolly mammoths and steppe bison throughout the Eurasian grasslands. But the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s led to widespread unchecked poaching of the goat-sized animals for meat and horns, and the population dwindled to tens of thousands.

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Land protections and hunting bans gave saiga the space to reproduce, and by the mid-2010s, there were 250,000 antelope on the Kazakh steppe. Then, the already-fragile population was hit by a fatal bacterial pathogen that swept through half of the world’s saiga antelopes within a few weeks.

While it was a serious blow to the species, hooved mammals like antelopes can make astonishing rebounds from mass die-offs. Females saiga have multiple calves at once, and with no predators, their numbers have been skyrocketing since. An aerial drone survey done by RSPB this spring estimates there are now around 1,318,000 antelope on the steppe.

“This is possibly the largest increase in biomass for any kind of conservation recovery,” says Day.

The government of Kazakhstan has reserved nearly 5 million hectares of the steppe ecosystem in the last twenty years – an area the size of Denmark – for wildlife like saiga antelope.

The animals’ recovery has become part of the national identity of Kazakh people, according to Vera Voronova at the Association for the Conservation Biodiversity of Kazakhstan.

“It’s become a species that people are really proud of,” says Voronova.

Though saiga have been the poster child of Kazakh steppe restoration, their recovery is linked to the return of other species, like the ground-nesting steppe eagle. Because the eagles scavenge on meat, the abundance of antelope has meant more food for the birds.

“By restoring the antelope as a keystone grazing species, we’re then able to improve the situation for all biodiversity that is dependent on a healthy steppe ecosystem,” says Day.

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