Conservationists Race to Save Unique Antelope

ULAANBAATOR, Mongolia, October 20, 2006 (ENS) - The effort to protect a rapidly declining species of rare, odd-looking Asian antelope received a major boost this week, as conservationists manage to capture eight animals and fit them with tracking collars. Numbers of the saiga antelope have plummeted 95 percent in the past 15 years, according to the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), and scientists are desperate to learn more about the unique creatures as they try and develop an effective effort to protect the species.

The eight saigas were captured and fitted with high-tech global positioning system (GPS) collars by a group scientists working in Mongolia's windswept Gobi Desert. The research team, led by WCS, is supported by the Mongolian Academy of Sciences and the National Geographic Society.

saiga

Researchers hope the tracking collars will help them learn more about the lives of the saiga. (Photo by Joel Berger courtesy WCS)

"The GPS collars will provide information on movements of saigas across this dazzling but arid landscape so that a more comprehensive conservation strategy can be developed to assure the persistence of this little known species" said WCS research scientist Kim Berger, a co-director of the study.

The antelopes are certainly a species with a distinct look. Standing just under two feet at the shoulder and weighing about 50 pounds, the saiga has a strikingly large nose - similar to a tapir.

The function of this unusual nose is not clear, but it may serve to warm or filter air during Mongolia's frigid winters and notorious dust storms.

But the population of saigas has fallen dramatically in recent years - from an estimated one million animals to only 30,000 - and the saiga is considered critically endangered by the World Conservation Union. The primary primary causes of the decline are poaching for Chinese medicine and competition with livestock.

saiga

The rare antelope has a face all its own. (Photo by Pavel Sorokin courtesy CITES)
Saiga horns can be sold in China for more than $100 a kilogram and focused hunting of males, which have horns, has put the species in further peril.

"We must take immediate actions to protect habitat and stop and poaching for saiga horns, while improving the conditions and resources of park rangers who are spending their valuable time to protect this unique species," said Lhagva Lkhagvasuren of the Mongolian Academy of Sciences "Otherwise, we will have only an empty steppe and deserts with no any saiga. Future generations will never forgive us for our carelessness."

The species still occurs in pockets of Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kalmykia, and Kazakhstan, but the genetically unique subspecies found only in Mongolia numbers perhaps less than 2,000.

Ten thousand years ago saigas roamed from the northern Yukon and Alaska to England, but the species was lost from North America and Britain as climate and vegetation shifted. With the collapse of the Soviet Empire, unregulated hunting resulted in the recent startling decrease in saiga numbers.

"Although Mongolia faces stiff conservation challenges as it transitions to a free-market economy, the saiga can easily emerge as a success story with a little scientific input and support for local communities" added Joel Berger, project co-director and senior scientist with the WCS.