Importance of the Chernye Zemli State Reserve for the Conservation of the Northwest Pre-Caspian Saiga Population: History and Perspectives

Authors: B.I. Ubushaev, Director of the Chernye Zemli State Reserve (Russia); S.A. Bogun, Deputy Director for Science of the Chernye Zemli State Reserve (Russia).


Bonn, 1 February 2023 - The Chernye Zemli State Reserve was established on 11 June 1990 for the restoration of the ecological balance in the deserted areas of the Chernye Zemli ecological region of the Caspian lowlands. At present, the Reserve plays a key role in the conservation of the Northwest Pre-Caspian saiga population (Saiga tatarica tatarica), which is the only population inhabiting exclusively within the Russian borders.

The Reserve consists of two distinct areas. Whilst the Stepnoy site of the Reserve is dedicated for saiga protection and restoration, Lake Manych-Gudilo is a wetland of international importance with nesting and wintering grounds for numerous rare species of waterfowl and shore birds.

The size of the Northwest Pre-Caspian saiga population has fluctuated considerably over the last hundred years and experienced some dramatic changes. According to various estimates, in the early XX century, approximately 1-2 thousand saigas roamed the Kalmyk steppes. Further, in 1948-1949 the saiga number increased to 100,000 individuals, and in 1958-1959 it reached 811,000. The development of irrigated farming and cattle breeding, uncontrolled mass shooting of saiga along with other reasons, led to the loss of their calving and migration areas and to a gradual decrease of the population in the 1970-1980s. Thus, in 1986-1992, the size of the Northwest Pre-Caspian population ranged from 130,000 to 168,000 saigas.

However, the most dramatic decrease in the Northwest Pre-Caspian saiga population and its habitat started in the late 1990s, bringing the species to the brink of extinction. In 2008-2009, roughly 13,000-15,000 saigas were recorded in Kalmykia, while in winter 2009-2010 their number dropped to 8,000-10,000 individuals due to severely cold weather and icing of pastures.  In the following years, the saiga numbers continued declining until it reached 3,500 animals in 2015. It was caused mainly by the illegal hunting for saigas, particularly for the illegal and profitable trade in their horns to South-East Asia and China.

Due to aforementioned circumstances, in July 2013, saiga was included to the List of Highly Valuable Wild Animals and Other Biological Resources. The illegal extraction, acquisition, storage, transportation, and trade of the species from this list may lead to criminal charges under Article 258.1 of the Criminal Code of the country. Moreover, the Red Book of the Republic of Kalmykia listed saiga in March 2015 and the Red Book of the Russian Federation in 2020.

The conservation measures in the Reserve that intensified since 2015 as well as targeted and coordinated actions of the Republic’s nature conservation organizations and law enforcement agencies allowed to change the critical situation around the Northwest Pre-Caspian saiga population. The results of saiga surveys over the last few years conducted during their mass aggregation demonstrated positive population dynamics in terms of its numbers and sexual structure. The population depression, which started in 1998, ended in 2016.

The experts estimate at least 18,000 saigas in the Northwest Pre-Caspian region and observe a recovery in the population’s quality. According to the monitoring data, in December 2014, there were only 0.7% of sexually mature males during the rut, whereas in 2016 the share increased to 6% and in 2019 to 16%. The summer surveys carried out at the beginning of July 2022 defined the current population structure as 19.2% of adult males, 34.0% of adult females and 46.8% juveniles of both sexes. The stock yield for saiga was 1.38 calves per a female, it is the highest index recorded since the start of surveys in the area.

The gradual recovery in the population’s sex and age structure can be a reason to expect further increase in its size. In the meantime, it is important to acknowledge that a drastic increase in the saiga numbers may cause certain issues in the future. At present, almost the entire Northwest Pre-Caspian population is concentrated in the Chernye Zemli ecoregion, which is within the Reserve and its adjacent areas. Individual saiga migrations and in herds, which sometimes can be a few thousand animals at time, have been regularly recorded in the following administrative districts of Kalmykia: Chernozemelsky, Yashkul, Yustinsky, Ketchenerovsky, Oktyabrsky and Tselinniy. All of them are located at a considerable distance from the current saiga habitat. For example, in summer 2021, we recorded the largest saiga migration of recent years – about one third of the Northwest Pre-Caspian population (3,000-4,000 individuals) migrated towards the Northern Kalmykia. We argue that this process is directly connected to the positive population dynamics and, therefore, its further increase in the coming years may be predicted.

This trend can be underpinned with previous years scientific data. The studies on saiga ecology and biology from the second half of XX century testify that their migration routes in Kalmykia stretched almost all along the central and eastern part of Kalmykia, up to the Ergeny highlands and the Kumo-Manych depression. And, as we have already reported above, we expect that the saiga range will keep expanding in the future. Simultaneously, there is a possibility that increased migrations may provoke a revival of poaching as well as elimination from other anthropogenic factors (e.g., electric fences, herding dogs, disturbance, etc.). In this regard, we believe that this situation requires additional efforts aimed at protection and population monitoring, and preventive measures outside the protected areas. In addition, as experience shows, it will be difficult to achieve significant success in saiga conservation without the active participation of law enforcement agencies and local communities.

Thus, we recommend taking the following actions to address the problems in an effective and timely manner:

  1. raising the awareness of local communities in the conservation of saigas, symbols of the steppe;
  2. ensuring safety of saiga migration routes through preventive anti-poaching work;
  3. preparing the habitat for long-term saiga presence (future calving areas, summer migrations) by reducing disturbance, removing potential linear barriers, etc.;
  4.  promoting wildlife-friendly alternative livelihoods through ecological and rural tourism among local communities.

Considering the importance and timeliness of this work, the Chernye Zemli Nature Reserve is working to establish connections with local communities in the Republic of Kalmykia, as well as coordinating joint efforts on the ground with local government and law enforcement agencies.


Last updated on 20 February 2023