Good news for the endangered saiga antelope in Kazakhstan: Numbers have almost doubled over the past two years to hit 187,000, the environment minister reports.
That means that numbers of this unusual-looking antelope, with its distinctive long, humped nose that allows it to filter air during the dusty summer months and breathe warm air during the freezing winters, have risen by over a third since last June, when the Ministry for Environmental Protection estimated the tally at 137,000, and almost doubled since 2011, when numbers rose above the symbolic 100,000 mark.
The latest figures indicate that the population of the saiga, which is listed as critically endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List, is starting to recover, although numbers still stand at less than a fifth of Kazakhstan’s million-strong population of the 1970s. The government has set a target to bring the population up to half a million by 2025.
The saiga has been decimated by poachers hunting it for its horns, which are prized in Chinese medicine. Saiga hunting is illegal in Kazakhstan – which is believed to have the world’s largest population of the antelopes – and carries a five-year prison term. But poachers continue to pursue the hapless creatures, whose horns fetch $75 a pair on the black market in Kazakhstan and a great deal more after they have been smuggled into China, according to an official estimate in 2011.
Paradoxically, successful conservation efforts could have an unexpected adverse effect by making herds of these creatures, which roam remote areas, more visible to hunters.
The saiga population faces threats other than poachers, too, including loss of habitat and outbreaks of pasteurellosis, a disease that attacks the lungs. One outbreak in 2010 killed nearly 12,000 in Kazakhstan, and there were further cases in 2011 and 2012.
Efforts to restore the saiga population are under way with the other countries where the animals roam – Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Mongolia and Russia – which signed a memorandum of understanding on saiga conservation in 2006.