As if Kazakhstan’s beleaguered saiga antelope population doesn’t have enough to cope with already, hunters are still trying to kill them for their horns.
A moratorium on hunting the animal is in place until 2021, but that has not deterred the most determined poachers.
Officials say that they have registered 21 saiga poaching cases this year in the southern Kyzylorda region alone, according to the state-run 24.kz television station.
Overall, 309 cases of illegal hunting were recorded in the region this year.
In the most recent case, police stopped a Toyota Land Cruiser in an area 20 kilometers from the Kumkol oil field and found the bodies of several saiga antelope in the trunk.
“During the search of the car, five bodies of saiga were found — horns, heads. Also unregistered 12-gauge shotguns, about 100 rounds of ammunition, a saw and a knife, which were seized as evidence,” Kyzylorda province police press officers Guljahan Kairbergenova told 24.kz. Two residents of the village of Karaozen are facing criminal charges.
Cases of saiga poaching have also been reported recently in the Akmola region, further north.
24.kz reported on December 3 that the bodies of six saiga with their horns sawn off were found on the grounds of an agricultural company called TOO Baumanskoe. Spent cartridges were found nearby.
The number of dead animals are highly conservative given the cataclysmic scale of die-offs registered among saiga earlier this year.
Prospects for the saiga look profoundly grim.
Scientists cited in a recent New York Times articles estimated that at least 211,000 saiga — equivalent to half the total species — died in May.
Signatories to a memorandum of understanding on the preservation of the saiga met in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, in late October, but with no clear evident consensus on what caused the latest wave of deaths among the animals. What is particularly tantalizing is that death occurred among distinct populations of the saiga located several hundred kilometers apart.
One leading investigator into the die-off, British scientist Richard Kock, has suggested, in the New York Times piece, that anomalous climactic changes may have triggered otherwise harmless bacteria residing in the antelope to evolve into lethal pathogens.
A representative for Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity of Kazakhstan, Sergei Sklyarenko, said an intense freeze is expected this winter, making things tougher than ever, according to a report on news website 356info.kz.
Against that backdrop, poaching is only compounding matters. Authorities in Kazakhstan have opened 139 criminal cases for poaching over the past two years, but the problems remains all the same.
One concern is that penalties for the crime in Kazakhstan remain too weak to act as a strong deterrent and prison sentences are extremely rare.
An potentially promising recommendation to come out of the Tashkent meeting was that of lobbying oil and gas companies active in areas where saiga are present to get more involved in conservation exercises.
Notably, the most recent saiga poaching case was right next to an oil field being jointly developed by Russia’s LUKoil and the China National Petroleum Corporation.