MOSCOW, January 15 (RIA Novosti) – Though the brunt of the conservation effort in Russia is focused on tigers and leopards, it is the steppe antelope saiga that qualifies for the country’s most endangered big animal, a UN official said on Tuesday.
“If the government doesn’t act to protect the saiga now…the species will disappear from Russia within five years,” Yevgeny Kuznetsov, who supervises the Russian steppe project of the UN Development Program, told RIA Novosti.
Kuznetsov estimated the saiga population in Russia at 5,000 to 7,000, compared to 815,000 in 1958.
The antelope is found in the Republic of Kalmykia in Russia’s south. There is also a substantial population in the neighboring Kazakhstan, estimated by the local authorities last year at 137,000.
The saiga’s most distinctive feature is its snout, but it’s the horns, used in Chinese traditional medicine, that make it subject to rampant poaching.
A pair of saiga horns fetches 8,000 rubles ($265) in Kalmykia, which is more than half of the average monthly salary in the region, one of Russia’s poorest, according to Alexei Vaisman, who heads the Russian branch of the wildlife conservation group TRAFFIC. Prices stood at a modest 12,000 tenge ($80) in Kazakhstan, the local branch of Radio Liberty reported on Monday.
Only male saigas have horns, but poaching has brought their numbers to a couple percent of the species’ population, which hampers reproduction, wildlife experts said.
The Russian government needs to establish a new wildlife reserve in the antelope’s habitat in Kalmykia, in addition to the two already functioning there, as well as reinstate a saiga protection squad that was disbanded after the fall of the Soviet Union, Kuznetsov said.
A global ban on saiga trafficking is also needed, Vaisman said in December. International agreements currently prohibit saiga hunting, but not the commercial trafficking of its derivatives.
The saiga has so far been pushed to the sidelines of the Russian media spotlight by Amur tigers and leopards, whose populations number about 500 and 50, respectively. The tiger conservation effort is spearheaded by President Vladimir Putin, and the head of the Kremlin administration, Sergei Ivanov, is lobbying to save the leopards.