Each spring since 2007, scientists have scoured Kazakhstan’s Ustyurt Plateau for baby saiga antelope. Because this population of the critically endangered species is the country’s smallest and most imperiled, the results are usually not encouraging.
In 2018, for instance, scientists found a total of 58 calves living in these southwestern steppes. In 2019, that number dropped to four newborns.
This decline makes the May discovery of 530 saiga calves hunkered down in the knee-high grass a welcome sign of a possible baby boom for an animal hunted nearly to extinction.
As recently as the 1980s, millions of adult saiga—known for their comical, trunk-like noses—roamed the plains of Central Asia. But after the Soviet Union collapsed, demand for the antelopes’ horns grew in traditional Asian medicine markets, and poachers descended.
Then, in 2015, a lethal bacterial outbreak, which killed around 200,000 of these goat-size animals, dramatically hobbled herds. In short order, more than 70 percent of the remaining population disappeared. In a promising turnaround, a 2019 census reported that the Kazakh population had rebounded to 334,400 animals—more than double the number of saiga found two years prior. (Read more about the saiga antelope mass die-off.)
Not only is the number of baby saiga a good sign, but the aggregation of adults that birthed them is the largest anyone has seen in this area in almost 10 years, says Albert Salemgareyev, a saiga specialist at the nonprofit Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity of Kazakhstan (ACBK).
“It’s really exciting for all of us,” says Saken Dildakhmet, press secretary for the Kazakhstan government’s Committee of Forestry and Wildlife. (Fariza Adilbekova, national coordinator of the Altyn Dala Conservation Initiative, which is part of the ACBK, translated Dildakhmet’s comments over a video call.)
“Due to good protection and patrolling efforts of the state rangers after the mass die-off, every year we’re seeing a steady growth of the saiga population,” says Dildakhmet.
Although poaching has declined, the sand-colored antelopes continue to face multiple threats. One critical threat was introduced by human infrastructure.
In 2014, the Kazakh government installed fencing along the country’s border with Uzbekistan in an attempt to prevent smuggling and drug trafficking.
“It was never really going to work, because it’s such a remote area, and it’s just barbed wire,” says E.J. Milner-Gulland, a conservation scientist at the University of Oxford and chair of the Saiga Conservation Alliance. “But it works as a saiga trap.”
The migratory animals winter in milder Uzbekistan and travel back northward to Kazakhstan to reproduce and give birth, starting in late April. But the border fence effectively cut this migration in half, though there was evidence that some determined animals did manage to find a way across. “Our specialists found saiga fur on the fences,” says Adilbekova, “and blood.”
Highways and other human developments also thwart migratory movement. (Learn about the world’s great animal migrations.)
A few years ago, Salemgareyev, Adilbekova, and colleagues received government approval to install gaps in the border fence, which would allow for the antelopes to pass. For unknown reasons, the saiga didn’t use the gaps—until this past winter.
“This year, we got the news from our Uzbek colleagues,” says Salemgareyev. “A group of saiga had appeared.”
“Hovering on the brink”
Considering how many saiga formerly to traveled these steppes, a few hundred newborns is a very small number, cautions Milner-Gulland, who was not involved in the discovery. But in a decade during which many experts have been concerned that the Ustyurt Plateau population is on its way to disappearing altogether, it is a promising sign.
The saiga population is “still hovering on the brink, but it’s going in the right direction,” she says. “Any baby saiga is a good news story.”
As research continues, scientists are learning more about the species’ life cycle. “Every year, we find something new,” says Salemgareyev. Recently, he and his colleagues happened upon a herd of about 5,000 saiga in the Ural population to the west; the bleating sounds were so loud, he says, that it was impossible to hear the person standing next to you. (Read more about efforts to save saiga.)
A group that size did not at first appear to be unusual—until the scientists realized the herd was entirely male, which have horns. Salemgareyev searched the scientific literature for similar observations and could not find previous documentation; his supposition is that the males go their own way during the calving season. Researchers have also found that, in some areas, newborn calves seem to skew heavily toward males—a change from findings 20 years ago.
Unknowns aside, one thing for certain about saiga “is that it's a survivor,” says Milner-Gulland. “It’s a species that's been knocked down several times, and it keeps bouncing back.”