The endangered saiga antelope has had a rough few years in Kazakhstan, hunted mercilessly by poachers for its horns and wracked by a deadly sickness that has seen thousands of these endangered long-nosed antelopes perish on the steppe.
Yet amid all the doom and gloom there is a glimmer of hope: Kazakhstan’s saiga population has more than doubled over the last five years, according to figures released by the Ministry for Environmental Protection.
The country’s saiga population now stands at 137,000 against just 61,000 five years ago, the ministry said. The news comes less than two years after officials reported that efforts to conserve this creature – listed as critically endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List – were bearing fruit as numbers passed the symbolic 100,000 mark in Kazakhstan.
The population has since grown by over a third, but today’s figures are still a far cry from Kazakhstan’s million-strong population of the 1970s. Since then the saiga – an unusual-looking creature with a distinctive long, humped nose that allows it to filter air during the dusty summer months and breathe warm air during the freezing winters – has been hunted mercilessly by poachers for its horn, which is prized in Chinese medicine.
Saiga hunting is illegal in Kazakhstan and carries a five-year prison term, but poachers continue to pursue the luckless creatures, whose horns fetch $75 a pair on the black market in Kazakhstan and far more once they have been smuggled into China, according to an official estimate in 2011.
The saiga population has also been hit by outbreaks of pasteurellosis, a disease that attacks the lungs, in recent years: One outbreak in 2010 killed nearly 12,000 antelopes and there were further cases in 2011 and 2012. Loss of habitat is another factor that conservation officials are attempting to tackle.
The Ministry for Environmental Protection attributed the latest success in increasing saiga numbers in Kazakhstan to sustained efforts and cooperation with the other countries where the animals roam – Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Mongolia and Russia – which signed a Memorandum of Understanding on saiga conservation in 2006.