For years, the curious-looking and much-loved saiga antelope has served as the symbol of Kazakhstan’s delicate ecosystem.
In the darkest times, the animal’s population is believed to have plunged to around a few hundred.
But the intervention of environmentalists and devoted preservation officials brought the saiga back from the brink. So much so that it is now farmers who are sounding the alarm, warning how the antelope’s surging population is putting their crops at risk and endangering their livelihoods.
Myrzabay Boranbayev, the manager of a farm in the West Kazakhstan region, has taken extensive measures to address the problem. When he planted 140 hectares of his land with fodder crops, he also installed electric fence around them to deter unwanted intruders. The efforts failed, leading to two-thirds of his crops being destroyed, he told Khabar 24 news channel in June.
“Saigas are now our top concern. How do we deal with them? The state should intervene to regulate their population,” he said.
The same Khabar TV report featuring Boranbayev’s interview showed a black SUV speeding across a field in a desperate but largely ineffectual attempt to drive the saiga away from the crop fields. Before long, the animals return.
In the neighboring Aktobe region, saigas are said to devour entire fields of sunflowers. To compound the problem, there was a significant surge in locust populations this year, resulting in multimillion-dollar damages to agricultural holdings.
According to a special state commission, saiga infestations alone have inflicted 7.9 billion tenge (approximately $18 million) in losses on 1,300 farms across the region this year.
For years, farmers have been appealing to the government to declare a state of emergency and provide financial support. But bureaucratic obstacles have hindered swift action, they say.
If it could speak, the saiga could well argue it is fully entitled to roam this land. This ancient species co-existed alongside now-extinct mammoths and saber-toothed cats over 10,000 years ago and battled the odds to survive, albeit as an endangered species in the international Red Book. Today, these wild animals primarily inhabit Central Asia, with over 90 percent of the global population residing in Kazakhstan.
In the Soviet era, saiga numbers were controlled through regulated hunting. Revenue from the sale of horns, skins, and canned meat was parlayed into state coffers. In the post-independence years, a moratorium on hunting was imposed in the late 1990s due to a significant decline in steppe antelope populations caused by rampant hunting. The moratorium remains in place.
This measure initially helped the saiga population recover to several hundred thousand individuals by 2015. But in May-June that year, a mysterious event resulted in the death of at least 150,000 saigas, over half of Kazakhstan's population, within a few weeks. Experts struggled for months to identify the exact cause, considering factors ranging from weather conditions and heptyl precipitation caused by Russian rocket launches at the Baikonur Cosmodrome to pesticides and genetic deterioration among the saiga population. Most scientists tend to favor the theory that hemorrhagic septicemia, a bacteriological infection that becomes perilous when immunity weakens, was to blame. This mass mortality crisis sparked significant concern for the saiga's future and drew parallels to the iconic status of pandas in China.
Adding to these woes are poachers. Despite the strict penalties of up to five years in prison for illegal saiga hunting in Kazakhstan, the allure of their horns, which is believed by some to possess unique medicinal properties, persists on the black market. Poachers primarily sell the horns in neighboring China, where they can fetch prices of thousands of dollars per pair.
Stringent measures have been put in place against poachers, including a new criminal statute introduced in 2019. This statute envisions penalties for illegal saiga catching, and the destruction, acquisition, storage, sale, import, export, shipment, and transportation of saiga or its derivatives, including horns. Punishment have also been stiffened for people resisting or assaulting park rangers, whose status has now been elevated to that equivalent to law enforcement representatives. In 2020, a court in Karaganda sentenced three men to life imprisonment for beating a gamekeeper to death a year earlier.
However, as saiga populations have surged, they have themselves become a problem. Last summer, amid extensive agricultural damage, the government proposed culling 80,000 saigas, a number that represents one-tenth of the western Kazakhstan population, for meat production. This plan has not been implemented and has faced resistance from animal rights activists.
Alyona Krivosheyeva, the director of conservation programs at the Kazakhstan Biodiversity Conservation Association, asserts that such drastic measures should only be taken after a thorough assessment of the actual damage caused by saigas. The claims from farmers lack concrete data.
Krivosheyeva stated: "We have only received complaints from farmers, but there is no tangible evidence quantifying the destruction of crops and pastures, just as there was none last year. This problem necessitates a comprehensive approach, including a detailed evaluation of the impact of wildlife on agriculture and a well-defined mechanism for sustainable saiga management."
Another animal rights activist, Timur Yeleusizov, an ecologist and chairman of the public association Kaz Eco Patrol, advocates for returning the fields to wild animals.
"These territories were originally saiga ancestral lands before being allocated to farms by local administrations,” he said. “Moreover, part of the steppe antelope population should be relocated from densely populated regions."
Yeleusizov stressed the importance of valuing Kazakhstan's unique fauna and flora, particularly the saiga, which he referred to as a "sacred animal" for the Kazakhs.
"Saigas are not merely wild animals to us. During the famine years of the 1930s, when collectivization led to the confiscation of our ancestors' cattle, steppe antelopes saved many people from starvation,” he said.
Proponents of population reduction argue for a pragmatic approach. Aituar Tuganbekov, a highly experienced senior researcher at the Education Ministry’s Institute of Zoology Education and Science, points out that saiga populations in Kazakhstan are now at an all-time high.
"According to the latest count, their number was approximately 1.9 million, without accounting for spring lambing. With the addition of offspring, the current population exceeds 2 million, a significant figure," he said.
Tuganbekov said that many experts agree a sustainable population of saiga that would ensure the survival of the species could afford to be much smaller.
Despite being a signatory to the Convention on Biological Diversity, Kazakhstan lags behind other participating nations in developing a comprehensive concept and a saiga population management program.
"This is the crux of our predicament. Nature conservation and biodiversity preservation are not top priorities in Kazakhstan, unlike the economy, and that is regrettable,” he said.
Almaz Kumenov is an Almaty-based journalist.