October 26, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

The story of saving the saiga at this Imperial Festival 2014 talk ...


The saiga antelope is one of the most threatened species on the planet. I came across them for the first time during Professor E.J. Milner-Gulland’s talk, where she explained her work with these strange-looking and very unique creatures, and the impact that politics and social change have had on their populations.

Saigas live in the wide steppes of Eurasia. In the 1980s, their population numbered around one million. But with the fall of the Soviet Union came the socioeconomic collapse that left people in villages without jobs, and the opening of borders led to uncontrolled poaching of male saigas—their horns highly valued in traditional Chinese medicine. To make matters worse, funds for conservation plummeted.

In just 15 years, their numbers had declined by 95%, to a mere 50,000 individuals. The International Union for Conservation of Nature was alerted and saigas were immediately categorised as ‘critically endangered’ and put on their Red List. But you cannot protect a species that lives in such remote areas and migrates up to 1000 kms every year by putting up fences. Involving locals in conservation efforts is paramount and can show rural communities that the researchers are equally concerned about helping them as they are about protecting saigas.

Professor Milner-Gulland and her team consistently found that people in the villages of Russia, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan – where the saiga populations are found – care about and value them as part of their cultural and nomadic heritage. They decided to engage the local communities in three ways. First, they targeted children, and by extension their families, through ‘Saiga Day’. Since 2008, this festival has been organised every spring and consists of art competitions, quizzes, theatre, traditional dance, and other activities to promote the conservation of saigas. A lot of investment has also been made into the creation of educational material so that children can learn about their own local wildlife.

The researchers found poverty to be the main reason behind poaching. Statistics show that the majority of poachers are poor, unemployed, young men with motorbikes that they use to chase the animals, so two programmes were developed to help improve people’s income. In the first one, called ‘Rotating Cows,’ households were given a cow and veterinary support, which brought in enough to lift a family out of poverty. It was highly successful, but there was not enough money to keep it going. As a more sustainable solution, embroidery groups were organised. The idea behind them is to provide women with an additional income for their work at the same time as learning about saigas. In a recently launched project, in addition to offering fair prices for the embroidery products, a premium prize was awarded to individuals with no poachers in their families. Groups of embroiderers with no poaching in their areas also got a premium that they can use for community projects. It’s up to the community to choose where and how the money is spent.

Finally, shepherds living in the steppe have been engaged by enlisting them as participatory monitors. Not only do they provide valuable ecological data but they become an active part of saiga conservation, an experience they felt was positive.

Today, new dangers such as climate change and the construction of railways and oil and gas pipelines threaten saigas. But not all is gloom. Saiga populations are adapted to recover very quickly and have bounced back many times in the past. Nevertheless, if people aren’t inclined to protect their local heritage, conservation efforts are never going to work. Collaboration between governments, scientists and local communities marks the path to a sustainable future.

The talk ‘Conservation in a changing world’ took place on 10 May 2014 at Imperial College London as part of the Imperial Festival.


IMAGE: Dschwen, Wikicommons