Elena Bykova, a native of Uzbekistan, is a founding member of SCA and leader for saiga protection in her country. She has a strong background in field research, as well as a unique ability to foster collaboration among community members and influential leaders. In this young and growing project, Elena and her team are actively making a difference for the saiga antelope and the people of the region.
Resembling a character from a Dr. Seuss book, the saiga antelope has evolved to be perfectly adapted to its life in the steppe and semi-desert of Central Asia and Russia. The saiga’s range includes some of the harshest landscape in the world. It migrates large distances between summer and winter pastures, travelling in herds that can number in the thousands. It is a relic of Ice Age fauna that included mammoths and saber-tooth cats. Herds of saiga once numbered in the millions, but today only 40,000 survive. In the past ten years, saiga numbers have declined by 96%, the fastest decline ever recorded for a mammal species.
The saiga antelope is listed as Critically Endangered by IUCN's Red List. The saiga's range once extended from England to Alaska and across Central Asia. Now they survive only in parts of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Russia and Turkmenistan. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 brought poverty and unregulated hunting to this region. Borders were opened up to poachers in search of saiga horns to sell for use in traditional medicine and for meat to sell and feed to their families.
The saiga's most distinctive feature is a long face and bulbous nose. The large tube-shaped nose extends over its mouth, filtering airborne dust during summer migrations and warming icy winter air before it reaches the lungs. Saiga roam across political boundaries and are often in unprotected areas, vulnerable to cars, trains, canals and humans. Saiga can run up to 50 mph to avoid wolves but cannot outrun humans on motorcycles. Groups of poachers will encircle large herds of saiga and chase them to exhaustion. The entire herd is then easily killed.
The saiga are migratory animals and can cover 70 miles in a day. The safe migration of saiga herds is important for their survival. This migration is currently threatened by a gas pipeline that is being built in the main saiga range from Uzbekistan into Russia. Saiga migration corridors cannot be re-routed because saiga move by pacing (both legs on one side of the body move forward together), and thus are unable to travel over hilly or mountainous terrain. Their movement is restricted to the flat steppe habitat where the pipeline will be installed.
Male saiga antelope face the greatest threat. Males have 12-inch long vertical horns, while females have none. The males' horns are coveted for traditional medicine. Poaching for these horns has depleted the number of males in the remaining populations to a ratio of 1 male to every 100 females. This low ratio is causing intense competition among the female saiga, where subordinate females are prevented from mating, thereby greatly reducing the number of young born each year.
The saiga mating (“rutting”) season starts in the wintering grounds. The saiga's white winter coat is 70% thicker than its buff summer coat, an adaptation that makes it uniquely suited for the harsh habitat of the steppe. However, due to the current population threats, the rutting season is now particularly difficult for the males. Sexually mature males defend harems of up to 15-40 females. Males in rut are involved in fierce territorial battles when guarding their harems against rival males. Up to 97% of the mature males do not survive the season. Normally the saiga numbers can absorb this loss, but the current population cannot.
An additional threat to the saiga antelope is loss of grazing land to ever-increasing numbers of domestic livestock. Overgrazing of pastures and poor livestock management techniques have led to increased competition and degradation of habitat. While saiga generally reproduce well (often giving birth to two young each year), good pastures and protected areas are needed for the rutting and birthing seasons. Severe winters and drought can also take their toll on the populations.
The Saiga Conservation Alliance (SCA) is a group of scientists and conservationists working in countries throughout the saiga's range to bring the plight of the saiga antelope to the world's attention. In cooperation with local communities and governments, SCA is creating a new understanding of the saiga's role in the environment and finding solutions to secure its future.
SCA began as a concentrated research effort to collect valuable information on saiga antelope ecology, but it has evolved into a community-based conservation initiative across the range countries. It works toward sustainable survival for the saiga by addressing the economic forces which threaten its survival; by engaging local communities in saiga protection and education activities; and by fostering collaborative efforts among all stakeholders in saiga conservation.
Rotating Cow Project
To alleviate pressure on wild animals hunted for food, SCA introduced a "rotating cow" scheme. A cow is given to poor families who could not otherwise afford one, to provide milk and offspring for building a small herd. The first female calf is given back as payment, which will then contribute to the supply for another family in need. SCA is also encouraging the breeding of local livestock that adapt well to the harsh environment and do the least amount of damage to the habitat. SCA works with local people to improve pasture management and animal husbandry techniques, as well as to incorporate management of the saiga as a crucial part of a healthy steppe ecosystem.
In addition to bringing the plight of the saiga to the world's attention, SCA carries out initiatives specifically focused on raising in-country awareness. Its public awareness work has included the use of media appearances (radio, TV, newspapers) and the distribution of materials (leaflets, calendars, and informational signs). Information signs are particularly important at railway stations. Much of SCA's public awareness work is based in local communities. SCA give talks to schools, universities, community groups; sets up ecological clubs; donates educational materials to children's homes and schools; and organizes school trips to visit saiga. Puppet shows are a popular national tradition and are used by SCA along with children and adults to tell the story of saiga conservation.
Education through Art
SCA uses art as a medium for conservation education with children. SCA organizes saiga art competitions and gives presentation about nature conservation in the schools of two villages with the highest levels of poaching. In one of these villages, SCA is also supporting a children's art club to revive traditional wildlife-oriented handicraft-making skills.
The revival of traditional art is a very good way to develop creativity, environmental consciousness, and people's connection to their traditional roots. It can also give children ideas for developing alternative (non-poaching) incomes in their adult lives. The children's artwork has been exhibited and on sale at the Wildlife Conservation Network's annual Expo, with profits being returned to the school club. This provides an incentive for the children to make high quality goods and will demonstrate a direct link between international concern for the saiga and concern for the welfare of local children.
SCA has also formed a women's cooperative to highlight traditional craft skills and share the message of the saiga. Women in these communities are influential in making decisions among the community and can carry the message of conservation to their families and friends. Each woman creates her own signature style of embroidery, while bringing in much-needed income for the family.
In Uzbekistan, local communities are actively working with SCA to map the distribution and migratory patterns of saiga antelopes. Monitoring activities are essential for conservation, but are often challenging to maintain over time because of limited human and financial resources. Participatory monitoring can be an effective tool to overcome these challenges, because it relies on people who live permanently in close proximity to saiga populations and can conduct long term field surveys at a fraction of the cost of other methods. SCA scientists developed robust and cost efficient monitoring methods that enable local partners to gather data on saiga sightings from moving motorbikes. Since 2011, they have trained ten local people, including zoologists, drivers, shepherds, and former hunters (but no poachers), who have few other work opportunities and who have implemented monitoring programs around three villages. The benefits of participatory monitoring are multifaceted because it not only provides important data to inform conservation actions, but also empowers local communities to take pride in, and earn revenues from, saiga conservation. SCA will analyze the preliminary results, including the robustness of the data and the social and economic sustainability of the program, to design and deploy participatory monitoring across Uzbekistan to provide long-term data on saiga distribution and abundance.
SCA maintains good relations with local and national governments and has been instrumental in bringing about policy changes that have begun to change the future of the saiga for the better. The governments have renewed bans on hunting and increased efforts to support a conservation ethic for their steppe. SCA's strong network of scientists and conservationists work hard to promote open and transparent communication to disseminate information and experience, thus counteracting the fragmenting influence of the break-up of the Soviet Union. The network's broad reach and influence is critical for many range-wide issues, including the threat of permanent habitat damage by gas exploration companies. SCA is committed to maintaining productive and collaborative relationships with these companies to secure protected areas for the saiga.
“Saiga News” Bulletin
SCA produces a biannual bulletin, Saiga News, in six languages. Published both locally and internationally, in hard copy and electronically, Saiga News allows SCA to deepen its relationship with all parts of society by bringing together all who are interested in saiga conservation. The bulletin has been well received by everyone, from local farmers in the saiga range to staff of the UN Conventions. Click here for the latest Saiga News
Saiga Friends Network
Building upon SCA's public awareness, education and collaborative activities, the organization is developing a network of “Saiga Friends,” consisting of advocates in each village in the saiga range, to work alongside SCA and the official nature protection agencies. SCA is developing relationships with volunteer Saiga Friends, who work proactively within their communities to promote saiga conservation. They are also involving Saiga Friends in a participatory monitoring program, which will contribute to an understanding of saiga distribution at different times of the year. Participants in Saiga Friends are provided membership in the Saiga Conservation Alliance.
The situation for the saiga antelope is critical. Saiga Conservation Alliance is an exceptional model of collaboration, efficiency and local knowledge. Thanks to their efforts, there is hope for this unique creature, the flagship species of the steppe