Saigas can survive! by E.J. Milner-Gulland

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Professor E.J. Milner-Gulland at the Interdisciplinary Centre for Conservation Science responds to articles suggesting that saigas are headed for extinction.

A recent article in the New York Times suggested that the recent massive die-off of saigas in Kazakhstan is “not going to be something the species can survive”, quoting my collaborator Professor Richard Kock. The quote goes on to say that if the weather triggers are broad enough the population could face extinction in just one year. This quote was picked up by the IUCN, because of Professor Kock’s chairing of the IUCN Wildlife Health Specialist Group.

I strongly believe that this is not the case, and I also think that this is not the impression that Professor Kock would have wanted to give. The saiga is a highly resilient species, which has suffered previous die-offs on a similar scale, and there is every chance that its population can rebound rapidly, given appropriate protection.

Although the die-off represents a massive loss, of 88% of the Betpak-dala population (the largest of five populations of the species before the mass mortality event, and still the second-largest), the fact that the species can rebound quickly is illustrated by this decline having taken the population back just 7 years – to the size it was in 2008. In 2010, another population, in Ural, lost an estimated 1/3 of its size in a die-off, and it is already back to pre-die-off numbers. So although the loss is catastrophic, it can be reversed quickly. The current population in the affected area is still higher than it was in 2003, when poaching had reduced the Betpak-dala population to a few thousand individuals.

One feature of the mass mortality in this year (and in previous mass die-off events) is the very wide area over which it took place; hundreds of kilometres. This is very unusual, particularly when it was so synchronous (so it wasn’t a case of an infectious disease spreading). Even then, however, the other four populations were unaffected, and there were even a few surviving individuals within the Betpak-dala population which appear to have been in areas where the disease did not strike. So the very large areas which saigas inhabit within a single population makes it unlikely that a whole population could be affected at once. It is not possible that all five populations could be affected by the same event, as they are in very different ecosystems, thousands of kilometres apart, and separated by mountains and seas.

Just because a single disease event couldn’t wipe out the saiga species in one year doesn’t mean that the potential for future mass mortalities is not a major concern. The saiga is vulnerable to multiple threats, and the fact that a very large proportion of its entire global population could die again in a matter of days means that we need to redouble our efforts to build resilience into all its populations. Of the five saiga populations, two are in imminent danger of extinction due to heavy poaching – the pre-Caspian (Russian) and Ustiurt populations. They are declining fast and already down to the low thousands. The Betpak-dala population can recover from this year’s mass mortality within 5-10 years if it is well protected from poaching, and its range is not disrupted by planned infrastructure developments (railways and gas pipelines).  The main thing this disease event has taught me is the importance of working to improve the viability of each of the saiga’s few, precious, populations individually, and not being content to see the overall numbers of individuals rising due to recovery in one population. An “all your eggs in one basket” approach to conservation is particularly vulnerable to single, catastrophic events like this year’s mass mortality.


E.J. Milner-Gulland is Tasso Leventis Professor of Biodiversity in the Zoology Department, University of Oxford, and leads the Interdisciplinary Centre for Conservation Science. She is also Chair of the Saiga Conservation Alliance.


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