The fate of the Saiga
Saiga are medium-sized antelope, found in the plateaus of central Asia. During the Pleistocene (aka, from about 2.5 million years ago until just 12,000 years ago) they were found all the way from the UK; east until Northwestern Canada. In more recent years as the earth’s climate warmed their range has shrank significantly, as their steppe habitat has shrank.
The animals take part in colossal migrations, often travelling up to 120km per day when moving between their summer and winter pastures-not bad for an animal only 60-70cm tall at the shoulder. It’s thought that this is why they have their characteristic large, flexible noses: herds of many thousands of animals travelling at this pace across dry plateaus kick up a lot of dust, and so their noses may be specially adapted to prevent them from choking on it.
Like many species of mammal such as the perhaps more familiar Deer etc, Saiga ‘lek’: where a male defends a group of females from rival males, and then fathers their offspring. To defend his harem, the males are equipped with horns, which they keep all year-round. These horns are the main reason why Saiga are currently facing extinction; their numbers down from over 1 million in 1992, to perhaps only 50,000 now.
In what I fear may become a recurring theme on this blog, these animals are routinely slaughtered for traditional Chinese ‘medicine’. Pre-poaching, males made up roughly 25% of the population, and in the breeding season would be seen defending groups of 12-30 females. Males are now estimated to make up only 2.5% of their tiny populations; so low that females now actually exclude other females from mating with them. As a result, the number of calves born per year has plummeted, and if the trend continues they will likely go extinct. That this is occurring is made even more surprising because unusually among antelope, female Saiga are able to reproduce when they are only a year old. This coupled with the fact that females routinely produce twins means that under normal conditions the animals would be very resilient to extinction, producing huge amounts of offspring every year. As it stands, they are designated ‘critically endangered’ by the IUCN, and as such are of extreme risk of extinction in the wild.
In traditional Chinese-style medicine powdered Saiga horn is thought to have a variety of beneficial health impacts, including the reduction of fever. Though this is known to be medically incorrect the belief persists, with some poor-quality ‘research’ backing up the claims for efficacy.
Clearly the best way to reduce the killing of males for their horns is to reduce demand, perhaps by educating consumers to the inefficacy of such treatments, but too often these attempts become seen as an attempt by ‘westerners’ to alter a component of a culture which we make little attempt to understand. Even with facts spread about the fallacy of these treatments it may be useful to draw parallels with ‘alternative medicine’ used in the west, such as homeopathy: though users are frequently confronted with evidence showing many such treatments do not work, they remain stubbornly committed to their use. People routinely trust anecdotal over clinical evidence.
Attempts to prevent poaching in the field are sadly very difficult for such nomadic animals, so how to best prevent poaching is a difficult subject. Yesterday calls were made in South Africa for debate to reopen on legalizing trade in Rhino horn, potentially meeting demand by humanely ‘shaving’ the horn off of the animals whilst anaesthetised. Whether a similar technique could work in Saiga remains to be seen, though as they reproduce so frequently it would likely not be viable.
Parallels to the trade in protected wildlife for medicinal use are frequently drawn with the trade in illicit drugs-that prohibition may do little to nothing to reduce demand, whilst simply ensuring that demand is met by the black market, with obviously detrimental conservation effects. It thus seems that the only truly effective way to save the Saiga is to reduce demand through some form of campaign of education amongst those who use it. Such a campaign must be careful to not simply entrench existing views, nor to increase any form of feeling of heritage in using such treatments. The notion of this seems ambitious, to say the least.
With CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) currently meeting in Bangkok to address the protection and status of the many of the worlds endangered species, it will be interesting to see if any new measures are taken for Saiga. Though saving them will certainly be difficult, the world would be diminished without it’s huge herds of weird, nomadic goat-monsters, charging across the steppe.