March 27, 2008—For an odd-looking, big-nosed antelope on the steppes of Central Asia, the threat of extinction is just a whiff away.
The saiga, a rare animal with a body like a deer and a head resembling that of a camel, has seen its numbers plummet over the past 20 years, scientists say.
Growing demand for its horns as an ingredient in traditional Chinese medicines has led to rampant poaching, driving the animal's once million-strong population down by 95 percent, experts note.
And now a new study finds yet another threat to the saiga's survival: a "bottleneck" in its migration route that is threatening its seasonal movement in search of food and water.
The new research, published in the latest issue of The Open Conservation Biology Journal, used global positioning system tags to track the animals as they traveled through Mongolia.
The results showed that the corridor connecting the saiga's two main populations was a mere three miles (five kilometers) wide and is being encroached upon by traffic from herders, trucks, and motorcycles.
"Like other species of the steppes and deserts, saiga have avoided extinction by being able to migrate long distances as their habitat changed over time," said Joel Berger, a University of Montana biologist who lead the study for the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) in a statement.
WCS is working with the Mongolian government to protect this narrow corridor, Berger added, to help keep the saiga moving.
"Given the uncertainty of how global climate change might affect specific regions, and how and where species might persist, prudent conservation strategies must take into account the movements of highly mobile species like saiga."