For World's Oddest-Looking Antelope, Signs of a Comeback

Thanks to conservation, the saiga antelope returns to Kazakhstan's steppes.

An adult male saiga in the Torgay region of Kazakhstan. The animal is making a comeback.

Part of our weekly "In Focus" series—stepping back, looking closer.

With its tubular, bulbous nose, it may look like a character from a Dr. Seuss book or the bar scene in Star Wars.

But don't be fooled by its droll appearance: The saiga antelope is one of the animal world's great survivors. (See video: "Ice Age Antelope Under Threat.")

Saiga (Saiga tatarica) are about the size of a small goat—males weigh on average 90 pounds (41 kilograms) and females around 60 pounds (27 kilograms)—and live in the steppes, the arid grasslands that encompass parts of Eastern Europe and most of Central Asia.

Despite their awkward running gait, head down, stubby legs on either side driving in tandem, they can clock 50 miles an hour (80 kilometers an hour) on their long migrations.

Saiga date back to the Ice Age—and they were once as prolific in Central Asia as bison were on the plains of North America. More than two million roamed the Eurasian steppes as recently as last century.

But following the breakup of the Soviet Union, poaching and other disruptions to their habitat led to a precipitous decline: In just 15 years their numbers plunged by nearly 95 percent, making the saiga antelope one of the world's most threatened animals.

In 2002, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)—the world's leading conservation body—placed Saiga tatarica on its "red list" of critically endangered species.

Conservationists, scientists, and non-governmental organizations have rallied to the little ungulate's side.

One informal grouping, called the Saiga Conservation Alliance (SCA), helped formulate an action plan for the saiga's preservation. All four countries where the antelopes still exist—Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Mongolia—have signed on.

The SCA works alongside the Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity of Kazakhstan (ACBK), the main organization coordinating the saiga's defense, which is headquartered in the Kazakh capital, Astana.

ACBK is establishing protected areas across a region the size of France in Kazakhstan, home to around 90 percent of the world's saiga.

The most recent saiga reserve to have been declared is a 1.2-million acre swath in the Altyn Dala (Golden Steppe) region.

Under the ACBK's auspices, to monitor their status, saiga are being caught and tagged, and the calves weighed.

Local people are being educated about the saiga's significance and the need to protect them.

This often constitutes a reintroduction to a lost tradition: Some indigenous groups once regarded the saiga as a holy animal.

The initiative is already yielding heartening results: From a low just a few years ago of around 20,000 to 30,000 saiga, spread thinly across Kazakhstan, their numbers last year passed the symbolic 100,000 mark. At last count they exceeded 150,000.

"This is a big deal, given the fact that the population was almost eradicated ten years back," says Steffen Zuther, a German scientist who works with the Kazakh government and the various organizations supporting the project.

Although, as Zuther says, saiga are still close to disappearing in some parts of their range, the hope in Kazakhstan is to return them to their early 1990s level of half a million.

Discussions are taking place about whether, and when, saiga can be taken off the critically endangered list, Zuther says.

Promising Signs

Poaching is on the decline in Kazakhstan, and saiga have been allowed to roam more or less freely.

The antelope's own fertile reproduction patterns are a boon. Females start giving birth when they're only one year old, and they often produce twins and triplets. (Saiga female life spans average ten years, and one doe may produce as many as 20 young.)

Saiga congregate Serengeti-like at a spot that shifts slightly from year to year, where they give birth en masse over roughly a week's time. This mass birthing allows enough calves a battling chance to survive predators: wolves, coyotes, and eagles.

Once, the flat expanses and shallow rolling hills of the Betpak-Dala region—greened from the spring rains and dotted with the whites, yellows, and reds of wild tulips—were blanketed with tens of thousands of massing saiga.

During the past decade, though, their numbers in Betpak-Dala (also known as Hunger Steppe) fell to just a few hundred.

The first indication that protective measures were taking root in Betpak-Dala came in the spring of 2011, when some 20,000 saiga returned to give birth.

Saiga Spotting

Steffen Zuther recently led me and a small group of others on a hike to witness the calving.

As we walked under the enveloping sky, the smell of wild sage hanging in the air, he spoke of the subtle beauty of the steppe—and the saiga's importance within it.

"If you draw a circle of the steppe's ecosystem, the saiga is at the very center," Zuther said.

Steppe regions are defined by extreme temperatures (from minus 40 to more than 110 degrees Fahrenheit, or minus 40 to 43 degrees Celsius) and by modest rainfall (between 8 and 20 inches or 20 to 50 centimeters a year), allowing only grasses, herbs, and shrubs to grow.

Although the steppe may conjure images of emptiness, some 2,000 species of plants grow in northern Kazakhstan alone, about 30 found nowhere else.

Saiga help maintain this vegetative balance through grazing and by carrying seeds in their fur that drop to the ground during their migrations between summer and winter pastures.

And, Zuther said, the antelope themselves are sustenance for those predators.

"The steppes that don't have saiga are somehow deader, quieter, and less diverse," he said.

Poaching: A Post-Soviet Crisis

During the late 1980s and 1990s, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the region underwent economic convulsions, and saiga became an easy means to supplement reduced diets.

Or make a quick buck. Chinese use the males' foot-long translucent horns, ground into a powder, as a medicine for headache and fever. A pound of saiga horn could earn a poacher U.S. $2,000.

A preferred hunting method was to chase a saiga in a car or motorcycle until it collapsed from exhaustion.

Poaching played havoc with saiga reproduction. The rutting season is an intense affair: Males fight to the death—between 50 and 70 percent perish in the process—and in the end one buck will maintain a harem of around a dozen does.

During the worst of the poaching, the ratio was reduced to one male for every hundred females—an impossible situation for long-term survival of the species.

As our group walked on, we encountered a Kazakh ranger patrol on the lookout for poachers. The men suspected that a group might be operating there—they'd seen tire tracks.

Equipped with high-powered SUVs and fast motorcycles, poachers frequently outrun law officers, who more often than not drive clapped-out Soviet-era jeeps.

Nevertheless, saiga poaching is on the decline, thanks to a higher number of rangers and more vigilant policing.

New Concerns

Disconcerting developments loom on other fronts.

Kazakhstan has built a fence along its border with Uzbekistan, bisecting the Ustyurt Plateau migration route of one saiga population, which is still dangerously sparse.

At the same time, Kazakh officials are planning to build a railroad across the all-important Betpak-Dala steppe, where most of the country's saiga live.

And over the last four years, a mysterious disease has struck down thousands of saiga, mostly females, in various locations at the end of their calving season.

Experts originally blamed the bacterial infection pasteurellosis for the deaths. Now some believe the saiga had eaten too much "moisture-laden" grass during their postpartum period, when they're particularly hungry and thirsty.

Birth of Hope

Moving softly, single file, we at last spotted a female saiga a few hundred yards ahead of us. She sprang up, then darted away.

As we approached the spot, we saw twin calves lying in the brittle, pungent grass. They couldn't have been more than minutes old.

Their downy, earth-brown fur was damp, their eyes unblinking black orbs, their twitching noses like miniature vacuum spouts.

The mother would return later, Zuther explained, and in a few days they would leave here altogether.

In the distance, eagles circled in the dome-like sky. Predators aside, the future for these newborns seemed reasonably secure.

As we stood admiring them, the only sounds were the soughing of the wind, the song of a lark, and the rapid breathing of the babies.

We were elated—and humbled. Yet another generation of a creature that had coexisted millennia ago with woolly mammoths was emerging into the world of humans.

David Stern is based in Kiev, Ukraine. He writes primarily about the countries of the former Soviet Union.