Just a few years ago, the rare saiga antelope was on the verge of extinction in Kazakhstan.
Now, saigas are roaming the steppe in such numbers that the government is thinking of domesticating the beasts.
Numbers have shot up more than sixfold in two decades to top 1 million, according to data cited by Andrey Kim, deputy chairman of the Forestry and Fauna Committee at the Ministry of Ecology and Natural Resources. Last year’s saiga count showed numbers at 1.3 million, up from just 21,000 in 2003, he said. Numbers increased by over 50 percent in just one year, after the 2021 count put them at nearly 850,000.
Earlier this month villagers in central Kazakhstan witnessed the extraordinary sight of hundreds of saigas racing through their streets (though this may have been because of new infrastructure disrupting their traditional migratory patterns).
The saiga comeback is thanks to major conservation efforts by the government to preserve a creature once driven to the brink of extinction from hunting – the horns of the male saiga are prized in Chinese medicine – and loss of habitat. Around 90 percent of the world’s population is estimated to be on roaming grounds in Kazakhstan; the antelopes are also found in Mongolia, Russia, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
To achieve this remarkable success, the government has banned saiga hunting and trading in saiga products since 1999, upped maximum jail sentences for poaching to 10 years and cracked down on online advertising of horns.
At the beginning of this year, the government extended a ban in place on the use of any saiga products in Kazakhstan, including horns and meat, until 2024.
The saiga nevertheless remains listed as critically endangered on the International Union of Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List.
Still, so successful have efforts been to save the saiga in Kazakhstan that there have been calls for the hunting ban to be rescinded, amid complaints from farmers that the animals are encroaching on their pastures.
The government said last year that the recovery had been so successful that the population had exceeded the “optimal number” for Kazakhstan of 700,000-800,000, so it was considering lifting the hunting ban at some unspecified point in the future.
Officials have already announced plans to study the saiga population this year, covering four areas: establishing the antelopes’ range and migration routes; forecasting scenarios for how the population will develop; studying foraging habits; and designing proposals on reducing competition with agriculture.
Now the government says it is cooperating with scientists researching how to domesticate the prehistoric-looking beasts, which have a long, bulbous nose that filters dust in summer and warms the air during freezing winters.
“The main goal is to study the saiga population as a whole, and examine the question of using the animals in future for agricultural purposes, the question of domesticating this animal with the [intention of] introducing them to crop-growing in future,” Kim said.
He did not specify precisely how that might work, or whether in the long-term agricultural use of the saiga might include rearing it for its meat. It was consumed in Kazakhstan and other parts of the USSR in Soviet times, when the saiga population was numerous.
Responding to applications from scientific institutions, the government has now earmarked a quota of 1,815 saigas for initial studies.
If the findings are encouraging, the saiga will be heading from the age of extinction into the age of agriculture.