With a snout that looks like the stub of an elephant’s trunk, the Saiga antelope is not the handsomest creature in the animal world. But that’s the least of its problems.
Just two decades ago, nearly a million of these creatures roamed the steppes of Kalmykia, in southern Russia. Now there are about 20,000. Their decline began with Soviet era farm subsidies that encouraged sheep producers to overgraze. Then, when the U.S.S.R. broke up and subsidies ended, declining sheep numbers left too much dry grass, leading to wildfires that destroyed the sagebrush that the antelope eat in winter. The post-Soviet era also brought on poaching—especially of Saiga males, whose horns are prized for medicinal use—and fragmentation of habitat from new development.
But some Kalmykians are working to save the Saiga, and they’ve teamed up with Volker Radeloff, CALS professor of forest and wildlife ecology, and Ph.D. student Maxim Dubinin to learn how human pressures have changed the Saiga’s habitat and habits. Dubinin is analyzing satellite data to map vegetation on the steppes and using radio collars to learn where the antelope are going and what they’re eating. This data will inform conservation efforts, Radeloff says.
“If we know where the Saiga are at different times of year, we can have wardens there to watch for poachers,” he points out. “And if we know where they forage in the winter, we can step up fire prevention in critical areas of sagebrush habitat.”
Poachers aside, he thinks Kalmykians would support such efforts.
“They’re proud of the Saiga,” he says. “It’s a unique species that isn’t found a lot of other places.”