Visiting the Saiga Area at the Ural – Food for Thought

Authors: Stefan Michel, Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union Germany (NABU), Germany; Aibat Muzbay, Regional Association of NGOs of Western Kazakhstan "Tabigi Orta", Kazakhstan, University of Greifswald, Germany; Til Dieterich, NABU, Germany.


Bonn, 25 January 2023 - The population of Saiga (Saiga tatarica tatarica), which inhabits the steppes to the west of the Ural River in West Kazakhstan oblast, has grown from an estimated 12,000 animals to an estimated 801,000 in ten years, between 2012 and 2022. Because of this rapid growth, local farmers have increasingly complained about the impact large Saiga herds were having on their hay meadows and pastures. Reacting to these complaints, in the summer of 2022 the Minister of Ecology, Geology and Natural Resources of Kazakhstan considered culling of 80,000 Saigas, but later withdrew this suggestion after protests from animal welfare activists, some conservationists and scientists and finally from the president’s office. A more thorough analysis was to be undertaken to prepare a strategy for addressing this situation.

In October 2022, in the frame of a project for the development of community-based conservation of the Saiga antelope, financially supported by the Advisory Assistance Programme for Environmental Protection (AAP) of the German Federal Ministry for Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety, representatives of a Kazakh NGO, the association “Tabigi Orta” together with experts from the German NGO Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union (NABU) and Center for Introduction of New Environmentally Safe Technologies (CINEST, Kazakhstan) visited the range area of the world’s largest saiga population in Western Kazakhstan – the Ural population.

 The mission of experts to West Kazakhstan, who normally work on establishing community-based conservation for the Ustyurt Saiga population, had several purposes: to gain own impressions about the currently most numerous Saiga population, the state of its habitat, the reported human-wildlife conflict and to explore prospects of sustainable use of Saiga. In addition to observing Saiga in their natural habitat, the team met with the Territorial Inspection of Nature Protection of West Kazakhstan oblast and with the administration of the newly established Ashchyozek and Bokeyorda protected areas, resulting in one expert from their scientific department joining the team. Interviews with village leaders and farmers helped to get an understanding of their perspectives. In the meantime, a master's student from the University of Greifswald (Germany) started – assisted by the entire team – to study the vegetation cover and the influence of Saiga and domestic livestock on it.

In order to set up the vegetation study, the team established several micro-exclosures, described in detail the vegetation, and measured the biomass in these exclosures and outside. During spring and early summer, the vegetation study will be repeated. The expert team is seeking opportunities to further expand this research and to continue studying the vegetation cover over longer periods in partnership with the scientific department of the protected areas and with the Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity of Kazakhstan (ACBK). During the first visit, it was observed that the relatively wet and mild fall allowed substantial regrowth of the steppe vegetation, providing rich forage for livestock and Saigas.

With respect to observing the animals, the team observed more than 20,000 Saiga antelopes with the largest herd numbering about 7,000 individuals. The ratio of different sex and age classes, particularly the share of adult males is an important aspect to guide the management of Saiga, for example, for estimating poaching pressure and for planning sustainable use. Considering this, the team determined sex and age ratios by direct observation and from video footage, concluding that making a reliable estimate of the ratios was extremely challenging, even for experienced zoologists. A particular challenge was the detection of the young males of the year, who were only distinguishable from females at a short distance. Moreover, when grazing the horns of even adult males were often not visible. When the animals were running, counting time was very limited and animals covered each other hindering reliable determination. Further observations, exchange of experience, and testing of new technologies are recommended to make the development of practicable approaches for this necessary monitoring possible.

The large number of Saiga antelopes grazing in these areas naturally left some carcasses of dead animals behind. During the study visit in the fall, migrating raptors, mainly steppe eagles and white-tailed sea eagles were observed feeding on these carcasses. The conservation of the large Saiga herds appears to be an important supporting factor for the conservation of the migratory birds of prey.

Local stakeholders – village leaders, farmers, and also the protected areas administration as well as regional nature protection staff – expressed concerns that the high numbers of Saiga caused increasing competition with farmers’ livestock and may already exceed the carrying capacity of their habitat. On the other hand, there are large areas of the former Saiga habitat in this region are not being used by the animals, although these areas are most likely still suitable for Saiga. Therefore, the expert team recommends that carrying capacity is not considered as a static value, but as a value that could change with range expansion, especially if such an expansion is possible and to be expected.

The currently disconnected three saiga populations in Kazakhstan had once been inter-connected and inhabited one vast range area. Therefore, if saiga populations continued to grow, there would be a chance that the range areas of the three large populations in Kazakhstan would re-unite into one contiguous range area. This would only be possible if Saiga is no longer seen as a harmful species which is “too numerous and needs to be regulated”, but becomes a useful asset for local land users. To change this perception and to further develop a positive attitude towards co-existence with Saiga, it would be necessary that farmers develop ownership towards Saiga and receive tangible benefits from their presence.

In the opinion of the authors of this article, the attitude of ownership and material benefits from co-existence with saiga can only be achieved with the development of a sustainable use system, which would be economically feasible, and aligned with conservation and animal welfare requirements. During this study visit, the team developed ideas for setting up such a system and discussed them with the Kazakh State Committee on Forestry and Wildlife at the Ministry of Geology, Ecology and Natural Resources in Kazakhstan’s capital Astana.

The Committee has been engaged in a dialogue with experts, and national and international stakeholders, considering different options to ensure the conservation of Saigas and their habitats for the benefit of local people, the people of Kazakhstan, and global humanity.

One of the options for gaining additional income for local communities, sharing their land with saigas is the possibility of re-opening international trade in the future. International trade in products derived from wild Saiga is currently not possible, because Saiga is listed in Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) with the following annotation “A zero export quota for wild specimens traded for commercial purposes”. This can only be changed by the next meeting of the Conference of the Parties to CITES in 2025.

However, in order for such a change to take place, a system of sustainable use would need to be developed and tested, and the first elements would have to be in place before 2025. Then there is a chance that the current ban on international trade in Saiga products is lifted and an economically beneficial use that supports acceptance of Saiga by local people and ensures the survival of the species becomes possible.

Last updated on 25 April 2023

Saiga tatarica
Species group: 
Terrestrial mammals