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International team urges action to save threatened antelope species

See also...
External Sites:
-Flora and Fauna International
-World Conservation Union
(Imperial College is not responsible for the content of these external internet sites)

For immediate use
Tuesday 6 July 2004

Urgent action is needed if the saiga antelope is to be saved from extinction, according to an international team of researchers reporting their first year findings today.

The latest population surveys in Kazakhstan have found that the saigas did not form a cluster to give birth this year in their former stronghold in Ustiurt, west Kazakhstan. Researchers are blaming widespread poaching, which continues despite the Kazakhstan government's commitment to saiga conservation.

The saiga antelope is one of the World Conservation Union's most critically endangered species. Over the last decade, numbers have declined by over 95% - from around a million in the early 1990s to just 21,000 in Kazakhstan and 750 in Mongolia today.

Imperial College London is working with partners Fauna and Flora International and the World Conservation Union (IUCN) in the UK, the Institute of Zoology in Kazakhstan, and the Institute of Ecology and Evolution in the Russian Republic of Kalmykia to ensure the survival of this species.

The group is lobbying for the ratification of the Memorandum of Understanding and action plan for saiga conservation drawn up by the Convention on Migratory Species in 2002. It is also calling for the establishment of captive breeding centres and protected areas for the saiga, as well as an increase in the number of mobile anti-poaching units and more effective enforcement of anti-hunting laws.

The UK team's work to save the species is focusing on both the reproductive biology of saiga antelopes and the role of hunting in villages local to their habitat. Project leader Eleanor Milner-Gulland of Imperial says:

"Although we discovered that local people are well aware of the risks to the saiga and are strongly committed to supporting conservation efforts, our initial research found that poaching is still rife and well-organised.

"There is still a relatively healthy population of saigas breeding within Kalmykias Chernye Zemli Biosphere Reserve, and we are working with the authorities to strengthen the capacity of this reserve to protect the species."

Hunting is the main cause of the saiga's decline, both for meat and for the horn, which is used in traditional Chinese medicine. The break-up of the Soviet Union added to this problem, leading to a shortage of funding for agencies protecting the antelope and also an opening up of borders with China that facilitates the trade in saiga horns.

Research led by Dr Milner-Gulland published in March 2003 revealed that selective hunting of the male saiga for its horns has caused females to outnumber males by a ratio of 100:1.

"The saiga is an important species for the steppe ecosystem because it is the only large wild herbivore that grazes there," she adds."It is also a national emblem in many parts of its habitat, and has a strong connection to the nomadic history of the Central Asian peoples - a connection that is now at risk."

Funding for research to conserve the saiga antelope is provided by the UK Government's Darwin Initiative, which has committed £150,000 over three years. The Kazakh government has also committed funding of $800,000 this year to protect the species.

Images of saiga antelopes are available on request

For further information contact:

Dr Eleanor Milner-Gulland
Department of Environmental Science and Technology
Imperial College London
Tel: 020 7594 9346

Abigail Smith
Imperial College London Press Office
Tel: 020 7594 6701

Notes to Editors:

The saiga antelope

The saiga is a small antelope that traditionally migrates in herds across the semiarid plains of Central Asia. Its unusual characteristics mark it out as a specialist of these harsh continental conditions - most notably it has a large nose that helps to humidify and cool air entering the lungs.

The nominate species Saiga tatarica tatarica ranges across four states - Kazakhstan, Russia, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. There is also a genetically distinct subspecies in Mongolia (Saiga tatarica mongolica).

Imperial College London

Consistently rated in the top three UK university institutions, Imperial College London is a world leading science-based university whose reputation for excellence in teaching and research attracts students (11,000) and staff (6,000) of the highest international quality. Innovative research at the College explores the interface between science, medicine, engineering and management and delivers practical solutions that enhance the quality of life and the environment - underpinned by a dynamic enterprise culture.


Darwin Initiative

This is a fund established by the British government to support key projects focusing on biodiversity. It focuses on using British expertise to work with local in-country organisations to solve pressing conservation issues, and provide training where appropriate.

Fauna & Flora International

Fauna & Flora International (FFI) is an international wildlife conservation charity based in Cambridge, which recently celebrated its centenary. FFI works in over 60 countries, building partnerships with local government agencies and NGOs and supporting them in their efforts to protect endangered plants and animals and their habitats.


IUCN - The World Conservation Union

IUCN is the largest professional body in the world concerned with conservation of global biodiversity. Its members include states, government agencies and NGOs. A global network of over 7000 scientists, conservationists and other experts are grouped into over 110 Specialist Groups. Two of these - Antelope SG and Sustainable Use SG are directly concerned with conservation of the saiga.