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Saving the Saiga

Protecting biodiversity in Russia’s steppe

A sign pasted to a lamppost in the town just outside the reserve advertises that someone is interested in buying saiga horns.

The text says they’re looking for antique horns, but the intention is clear: if you have horns, we’ll buy them.

One kilogramme of saiga horns (equalling two or three pairs) can fetch US$5000USD in China. The purchase price on the Russian steppe can reach up to 25,000RUB (about $375), a significant temptation for local poachers. In 2013, Russia toughened penalties for illegal saiga hunting, and for storing or selling any parts/derivatives of the saiga. In 2015, anti-poaching operations were stepped up, and coupled with efforts to combat illegal purchases of horns, but these efforts have not been enough. More work is needed to stop poachers and save the saiga population.

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Russia’s steppe regions provide habitats for 11 mammal species of global conservation concern, including one of the world’s most charismatic ungulate species, the saiga antelope. Historically inhabiting the steppes and semi-desert regions of south-eastern Europe and Central Asia, from the Pre-Caspian steppes to Mongolia and western China, the saiga is the only surviving member of the Saiga genus, and has been categorized as ‘critically endangered’.

Currently, the saiga is found primarily in Russia and Kazakhstan. The Republic of Kalmykia, in the southwestern part of European Russia, is a key stronghold for saiga, and the epicentre of conservation efforts.

Until the late 1980s, more than one million saiga roamed the arid regions of Eurasia. Owing to over-hunting, the total global population of the saiga had dwindled to just 50,000 by the 1990s. But the plucky antelope, with help from a series of conservation measures targeting poachers, had rebounded to a few hundred thousand individuals across their entire range by early 2015.

Saiga rehydrating in Kalmykia.


In May of 2015, however, a grim epizootic decimated the saiga population in neighbouring Kazakhstan. Two normally harmless bacterial constituents of the saiga microbiome, Pasteurella multocida and Clostridium perfringens, exploded into deadly infections that killed more than half of the entire species. Studies have shown that increased temperatures can induce toxin production in otherwise beneficial bacteria; climate change has raised the average May temperature by several degrees across the saiga’s range .

The best defence against such die-offs is a robust saiga population that can withstand disease and adapt or migrate in the face of climate change. Unfortunately, the saiga are again under threat, primarily due to poaching. Male saiga horns are highly valued in traditional Chinese medicine, and due to selective poaching the saiga are suffering a new, reproductive collapse.

As a result of poaching, the sex ratio for saiga populations in Kalmykia has become severely skewed; the proportion of males currently varies from 0.7% to 3% (15-25% represents a normal distribution). Due to the desperately low share of males, 80% of females cannot take part in reproduction; exhaustion among males after the oestrus period kills off still more. The fate of the saiga hangs in the balance.

A rare sighting of three newborn saiga.

Preserve and Protect

Bolstering anti-poaching efforts, the UNDP-supported ‘Improving the Coverage and Management Efficiency of Protected Areas in the Steppe Biome of Russia‘ project has been working since 2010 in the state biosphere reserve, Chernye Zemli in Kalmykia. Chernye Zemli (meaning “Black Lands”) is a zapovednik - a strictly protected area meant to be “forever wild“.

Financed by the Global Environment Facility, the project – supported by UNDP and implemented by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment of the Russian Federation – is working in four reserves and four zapovedniks (protected areas). The project is not just dedicated to anti-poaching, but has also worked to expand Russia’s steppe protected area system, establish tighter management and more secure funding. Building on the fact that approximately 25% of Asia’s steppes remain in largely native condition, Russia’s steppes are considered global priorities for conservation action.

A viewing platform, coupled with cars and a plane, allow the team of 40 rangers to patrol and monitor the reserve.
Khongr Mandzhiev, Scientific researcher at the Black Lands reserve, Kalmykia.
On an average day 4-10 rangers, often working with researchers and scientists, patrol all corners of the reserve.
Adept at spotting the migrating saiga, two rangers spot a herd towards the north of the Atsan Khuduk Station in the Black Lands reserve.
As part of ongoing research, video monitoring - both on the ground and aerially - allow for accurate monitoring of the fluctuating number.

In addition to purchasing equipment and vehicles, and supporting the development and adoption of strong policies enhancing cooperation, the project has worked with the Kalmykia government to expand the reserve buffer zone. These combined efforts have improved the reserve’s anti-poaching capacity significantly.

Recognizing that protected areas serve as the foundation for long-term conservation of steppe ecosystems and biological diversity, the project has focused on the establishment and management of a secure, comprehensive, adequate, and representative system of protected areas.

But protected areas are not the only solution. The project team recognizes the need for not only stronger institutions and enforcement, but also work on poverty reduction and the creation of new economic opportunities. Due to the dire situation that the saiga is currently facing, total prohibition of the saiga meat and horn trade, as well as a temporary removal of saiga from the allowed list of hunting animals have been proposed as key conservation measures.

The purchase of tractors and fire fighting equipment allows the project team the ability to create fire breaks and respond quickly to fires.
The Atsan Khuduk Station in the Kalmykia reserve accommodates up to 10 people and includes equipment storage facilities and research area.
A billboard in Elista town, the capital of Kalmykia, advertises Steppe Day with the message: “Let’s save our living heritage.”

In order to implement these key conservation measures, the project is also working to fully engage the local communities and hunters in decision-making, by raising awareness in the communities that share the steppe with the saiga in Kalmykia.

For example, Steppe Day, which was initiated by the project is now an official regional holiday. The aim of the celebration is for local residents to learn about the living nature that surrounds them - and the beauty and value of the saiga antelope in particular.

“We don’t have enough time to just educate the children. We can’t control everybody. If we wait for the next generation to act, the Steppe will be a desert and the saiga will be gone.” -Evgeny Kunetsov, Project Manager for the UNDP-GEF Steppe Project.

Legislation protecting the saiga exists at the national level, but increased enforcement - and especially external funding for anti-poaching measures and linked rural development - are urgently needed.

Saiga are well camouflaged and well adapted to the semi-desert steppe ecosystem.
Rangers monitor newborns carefully.
A newborn saiga, likely no more than 2-3 days old, with umbilical cord still visible.

forever wild

At the beginning of the project, there were 15,000 Saiga antelope in Kalmykia, with an 8% share of males in the population. Despite the increased efforts of the project, and based on recent field survey reports, at present there are no more than 8,000 saiga in Kalmykia. More pessimistic estimates put the figure as low as 4,000. At best, this leaves just 240 male saiga in Kalmykia.

This year’s theme for World Environment Day – Go Wild for Life – encourages people everywhere to celebrate all species under threat and to take action to help safeguard them for future generations. Countering illicit trade begins with a refusal to purchase products derived from saiga and other endangered species. Governments and international bodies need grassroots support in introducing and enforcing tougher laws to prevent further undermining of economies and ecosystems.

Whoever you are, and wherever you live, show zero-tolerance for the illegal trade in wildlife in word and deed, and make a difference.

“It is good for humanity and good for future generations. If we save nature, we save ourselves. Saiga lived in this territory before people were here and it should not be up to us to decide which species can live and die. They lived here before us and they should live here after us. It is our duty to save them.” -Evgeny Kunetsov, Project Manager for the UNDP-GEF Steppe Project.
Another herd of saiga in the State Biosphere Zapovednik in Kalmykia. Zapovednik means sacred and prohibited from disturbance.
Zapovednik is a term for territory meaning committed to protect, committed to heritage - a protected area meant to be "forever wild".

Save the Steppes

For more information on the project, and conservation efforts in the three additional reserves and zapovedniks (Kursk Region, State Central Chernozem Biosphere Zapovednik, Orenburg Region and the Orenburg State Nature Zapovednik and in Zabaikalsky Krai and the Daursky State Biosphere Zapovednik), visit

Releasing a griffon vulture (Gyps fulvus) that had been trapped in a well.
Long-legged Buzzard (B.rufinus) chicks waiting for food.
A Long-legged Buzzard stands proudly on her nest, her chicks at her feet. Birds are an important and iconic feature of steppe ecosystems.
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Footnote: Story by Andrea Egan, Evgeny Kunetsov and David Angelson / Photos by Natalia Sudets for UNDP Steppe Project and Garya Garyaev, Gennady Uysin and Vladimir Badmaev for UNDP Russia.
Kalmykia, Russia