The fate of the saiga, a prehistoric antelope species, found on the windswept steppes of Central Asia, will be decided as CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) gathers for its 18th Conference of the Parties (CoP18) August 17-28 in Geneva. The saiga is on the IUCN Red List as Critically Endangered and is vital to the ecosystem of Mongolia’s steppe.

To save the saiga, Mongolia and the U.S. have proposed transferring it to CITES Appendix I, which would prohibit international commercial trade. However, some governments and trade interests are more focused on a less endangered population in Kazakhstan, than the critically endangered Mongolian saiga population.

Inclusion of saiga on Appendix I of CITES will help ensure that international commercial trade will not contribute to further declines and will help range states and other parties combat any illegal trade. Currently all saiga range states have voluntary moratoria on international exports of saiga parts and products but this is not legally binding under CITES.

Said Enkhtuvshin Shiilegdamba, WCS Mongolia Director:

"Mongolian saiga have undergone a significant mass mortality from December 2016 through March 2017 due to the Peste des Petits Ruminants virus that killed more than 60 percent of the population within 4-month period. With our total saiga population remaining less than 3,000 in Mongolia, we are deeply concerned with the commercial trade plan of other saiga range states. The commercial trade will create high demand for saiga horn and thus may lead to uncontrolled poaching and wildlife trafficking which may wipe out the remaining saiga population of less than 3,000 in Mongolia.”

The critically endangered saiga antelope (Saiga tatarica), with its strange oversized muzzle and delicate ringed horns, roams the open steppes of Central Asia, in Mongolia, Kazakhstan, the Russian Federation, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. The species was formerly widespread numbering well over 1 million individuals as recently as the 1970s. However, it repeatedly experienced drastic declines in the late 20th century, reaching an all-time low of about 50,000 animals in the early 2000s.

There has been some rebounding of saiga populations since then, but the species is still threatened by poaching and illegal trade; the males’ horn is used in traditional medicine in China and Southeast Asia. In addition, it is subject to wild fluctuations due to disease outbreaks, with as many as 200,000 dying in a single outbreak over a three-week period in 2015.

Said Susan Lieberman, WCS Vice President for International Policy: “Although trade is one of several threats, the critical state of the population means that any additional pressure from legal or illegal trade will exacerbate the current situation. If saiga are to persist in healthy herds across the steppes of Central Asia, governments should heed the bold call of Mongolia and provide the highest level of protection to saiga.”

WCS is a strong supporter of CITES, has staff who have attended all meetings of the Conference of the Parties since CoP7 in 1989, and will be represented by many international wildlife and policy experts at the 18th meeting of the Conference of the Parties (CoP18) in Geneva, Switzerland. WCS views on the proposals to amend the Appendices are based on the CITES listing criteria, the best available scientific and technical information, and information from our field and country programs around the world. To learn more about WCS recommendations go HERE. WCS’s ‘on-the-ground’ presence across much of the globe enables it to address multiple aspects of wildlife exploitation and trade, including wildlife crime, at all points along the trade chain in source, transit and consumer countries.