Death on the steppes: The saga of the saiga antelope

This wouldn’t have been possible without the support of the Saiga Conservation Alliance. They are a network of researchers and conservationists that are working in several countries in the Saiga’s range to save this beautiful animal.

With its distinctive, almost Muppet-like nose, the saiga has a face you can’t forget. But, as a mysterious mass die-off event recently underlined, unless its luck changes soon, this enigmatic animal could completely disappear from the Eurasian steppe.

The male saiga has a magnificent snout, especially during rutting season. It’s a bit like the Elephant’s Child, halfway to getting its trunk in Kipling’s “Just So” series. This peculiar proboscis performs a number of functions—including air conditioning and dust control during breathing, both handy in the extreme environment the saiga inhabits—but it’s an entirely different feature that causes the animal the most grief: its horns.

Photo via Victor Tyakht / Shutterstock
Photo via Victor Tyakht / Shutterstock

In October 2015, a truck with 5300 saiga horns—destined for use in Chinese medicine and popular drinks sold across Southeast Asia—was intercepted by Xinjiang police on the Kyrgyzstan–China border. The haul provided hard evidence of a species still being obliterated by human predation just months after a catastrophic die-off wiped well over half of their entire number from the face of the planet.

This is just the latest twist in the saiga saga, a tragic tale where natural disaster, inherent vulnerability, human misjudgement, and economic rapaciousness have all combined to send a once-abundant species into a sudden and severe existential crisis.

In May 2015, a devastating epizootic illness swept across 168,000 square kilometres of eastern Kazakhstan with terrible speed. Within a fortnight, well over half of the world’s entire population of saiga lay dead on the steppe.

The horror was discovered by chance. A team from the Frankfurt Zoological Society was visiting to observe the birth of a new generation in the calving grounds of Betpak-dala, where the fortunes of the species finally looked to be improving. Instead, they found apocalyptic scenes, with the ground covered in corpses.

The scale of the die-off and the virulence of the attack—which had a 100 percent kill rate once herds were infected—left experienced professionals reeling. Dr Richard Kock from London’s Royal Veterinary College, who led the on-ground disease investigation project, says it was the grimmest thing he’d ever encountered in a lifetime of working with disease.

The statistics remain staggering. At the beginning of the year, there were 230,000 to 240,000 saiga in the Betpak-dala population. Immediately after the die-off, the official body count—recorded as dead animals were shunted into giant holes in the ground—was 150,000.

Victor Tyakht / Shutterstock
Victor Tyakht / Shutterstock

Dr EJ Milner-Gulland, the chairperson of the Saiga Conservation Alliance, tells me the real figure was more like 211,000—a number calculated from aerial surveys completed before and after the die-off. And both sets of stats account only for adults. “You would probably double that if you included all the calves that died,” she says.

The cause of the calamity was quickly identified. The animals were killed by pasteurellosis and clostridium poisoning. But why these bacteria—both commonly found across a range of species—suddenly turned toxic and so very virulent in this particular population remains unexplained.

Several environmental factors are being analysed, including the potential effects of a flood that previously hit the region, and a range of rapidly changing climatic conditions. Data compiled by the Saiga Conservation Alliance reveals a significant northward shift in calving locations over the last 40 years, almost certainly caused by climate change.

In 2015, after unusually mild weather, there was a sudden drop in temperature shortly before the tragedy, which occurred when the saiga were at their most vulnerable, during the mass aggregation of females that takes place around birthing.

“Saigas really invest in reproduction,” explains Dr Milner-Gulland. “They have twins, they have large babies, and they all gather together in very short time and space, so they’re all very stressed at that point. A sudden drop in temperature could trigger virulence.”

Ungulates in general, and saiga in particular, have experienced large-scale die-offs in the past. The last one happened in 1988, with similar numbers killed, but the population was much bigger then and it was able to bounce back.

“Up to this die-off we thought mortalities were only a percentage of the aggregations,” Dr Koch tells me. “Now we know it can be 100 percent of an aggregation. Perhaps this recent event is unusual but it has proven that a die-off can virtually wipe out a population.”

In the 2015 event, the survivors were overwhelmingly male—and this is where things get even worse. Male saigas naturally lead a tough and short life, typically dying off after rutting. Their chances of survival have been drastically reduced in the last two decades, however, by human predation—thanks to a particularly unfortunate combination of circumstances.

Victor Tyakht / Shutterstock
Victor Tyakht / Shutterstock

When an international ban on the use of rhinoceros horn came into effect in 1993, the producers of Chinese medicine products began looking for substitutes, and the saiga was targeted.

The results were disastrous, producing the most dramatic change of fortune for a mammal in living memory. As a direct result of over hunting, the global population plummeted from millions to less than 50,000 in a decade. Hastily reclassified as critically endangered, the saiga suddenly became the focus of urgent conservation campaigns. Protection was put in place, and the Betpak-dala population in particular began to bounce back. And then the die-off burst the bubble.

“All our eggs have been in one basket,” says Dr Milner-Gulland. “That population had been massively increasing, and everyone was calling it the saiga success story, but the other populations aren’t doing as well.”

Four other populations of saiga are spread across the Eurasian steppe. The population in Mongolia is small, but healthy; the one in Ural suffered its own die-off in 2010, and the remaining populations—in Uzbekistan and Russia—are teetering on the edge of extinction because of poaching.

“With only five populations left, each of them is now at significant, and equal risk of extinction,” cautions Dr Koch. “The chance of all five developing a disease of this nature at the same time is low but as we lose each population, the chance increases for species extinction.”

And this is why Dr Milner-Gulland is stressing that it’s critically important for NGOs and governments to address the “other” question—of increased protection for the animals—as well as trying to unravel the mysterious incidents of mass mortality.

“There’s a scientific puzzle that needs to be solved around the causes of this disease—but it’s clear that saigas are vulnerable to this kind of mass die-off,” she says. “It’s probably going to happen again, and what we need to do is to make sure that they’re capable of withstanding it. All the governments have ranger patrols who are tasked with stopping poaching, but more are needed, with more capacity.”

Since the die-off in May, the Saiga Conservation Alliance has channelled funding raised to the Stepnoi Reserve in Russia, providing all-weather suits to rangers, enabling them to do motorbike patrols year-round in an environment where temperatures range from -40°C to +40°C.

And despite it all, Dr Milner-Gulland remains optimistic. “It’s a resilient species,” she insists. “If all goes well, and it’s properly protected, within say five years—it could be back.”

Let’s hope so. Otherwise the face you can’t forget will be relegated to a mere memory on the steppes where it once grazed by the million.

Victor Tyakht / Shutterstock
Victor Tyakht / Shutterstock

The saiga saga in numbers

• 230,000 – Size of Betpak-dala saiga population prior to 2015 die-off
• 150,000 – carcasses buried by teams on the ground after die-off
• 211,000 – total number of adult animals killed, according to discrepancy between pre and post die-off aerial surveys
• 80%+ – proportion of the Betpak-dala population wiped out in this single event
• 60%+ proportion of the entire species wiped out in this single event
• 168,000 square kilometres – size of the area where the die-off occurred