Conservation work at Imperial College London led to the saiga antelope being classified as critically endangered, ultimately helping the population level rebound by almost 190%.

The saiga antelope once inhabited a vast area of the Eurasian steppe zone and parts of North America, but the species is now found only in Russia. Research on saiga antelopes began at Imperial in 1990 under the leadership of Professor E.J. Milner-Gulland, in collaboration with members of her research group and partners located where field research was taking place.

At that point, little information about the species existed, with virtually no research published in English. The group’s ground-breaking work investigated the ecology and life history of the saiga antelope, covering a range of areas including the species’ genetics, distribution, mating system, individual growth and aging and population monitoring methods.

Existential threat

The research took an unexpected turn in the late 1990s and early 2000s when the saiga population declined by 95% due to poaching for meat and horns following the break-up of the Soviet Union.

Professor Milner-Gulland and team presented data on population trends following this period of political change, leading to the listing of the species as ‘Critically Endangered’ on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List. This international response was crucial in catalysing investment in conservation both by large international NGOs and by governments.

Since 2009, Imperial's research has shifted towards understanding the effects of humans on saigas, and the drivers of poaching behaviour, with the aim of underpinning conservation interventions.

Evidence-based conservation

To take one example, the team found that poachers tend to be some of the poorest individuals in their communities. Intensive engagement with poachers, including providing alternative livelihoods, led to a higher intention to conserve than traditional conservation based solely on law enforcement.

They also showed that a public engagement campaign through the media had improved the general public's knowledge of saiga ecology and conservation as well as their attitudes towards the species and its conservation. Professor Milner-Gulland and others established a bi-annual newsletter Saiga News which gives information on research outputs in six different languages and is the main dissemination vehicle for in-country stakeholders.

While still endangered, the saiga population increased by almost 190% between 2006 and 2012 as a result of these conservation efforts. In addition, the conservation processes set in place as a result of the research undertaken at Imperial are now seen as a model of best practice under the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS).