Slaughter of Rare Antelopes Threatens Conservation Efforts in Kazakhstan
The Kazakh Agriculture Ministry has sounded an alarm over the fate of the saiga, a critically endangered antelope that roams the steppes of Central Asia. The animals continue to fall prey to poachers engaged in the lucrative trade in their horns, which fetch large sums over the border in China where they’re prized for use in traditional medicine, the Kazakhstan Today news agency reports. Over the last two months forestry inspectors in western Kazakhstan have found 111 saiga carcasses left behind by poachers, and since the beginning of 2009 a total of 312 saigas have been found shot dead, the Agriculture Ministry’s Forestry and Hunting Committee says. The deaths registered by inspectors are undoubtedly just the tip of the iceberg. Kazakhstan faces a formidable challenge in its saiga conservation efforts, with hard-pressed inspectors trying to police the vast and remote territories where the antelopes roam as poachers continue to hunt them down. Kazakhstan plans to introduce a stiff penalty of three years in prison for killing saigas, Deputy Agriculture Minister Marat Orazayev told parliament on November 23.The World Wildlife Fund identifies loss of habitat and hunting as key threats to the existence of the saiga, a distinctive creature with a long, humped nose that allows it to filter air during the dusty summer months and breath warm air during the freezing winters.To combat the slaughter of the antelopes for their horns, the Forestry and Hunting Committee is proposing banning adverts for the purchase of saiga horns, which are placed by traders in the media, its chairman has said. The advertising is blatant and “has to be rooted out,” the Kazinform news agency quoted Yerlan Nysanbayev as saying at a meeting on saiga conservation.Nysanbayev said that Kazakhstan’s recent success in slightly boosting saiga numbers after a sharp decline is undermined by a rise in poaching, which he put down to Chinese demand: “We are starting to become alarmed by the fact that with the increase in the saiga population the number of cases of poaching is increasing in parallel. A recent trip to a seminar in China showed that the People’s Republic of China is the main consumer [of saiga horns]; this is an old ingredient in ancient Chinese medicine.”In a further setback to conservation efforts, earlier this year 12,000 saigas died in an epidemic of pasteurellosis, a disease that attacks the lungs.The saiga is listed as Critically Endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List, and the countries where the animals roam – Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Mongolia and Russia – signed a Memorandum of Understanding on saiga conservation in 2006. Kazakhstan’s saiga population’s plummeted from a million in 2000 to 85,500 today, the Forestry and Hunting Committee says – but there’s a glimmer of hope too: Numbers have risen slightly on last year figure, when the country’s saiga population numbered 81,000.
Joanna Lillis is a journalist based in Almaty and author of Dark Shadows: Inside the Secret World of Kazakhstan.
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