Saiga suffered a massive die-off during the calving season. In the short period of only two weeks, more than half the world population was found dead, the bodies of adults and young calves scattered across the spring grassland in the thousands. A disease is suspected, perhaps coupled with external factors from vegetation or changes in weather; but despite an immediate response and intense study, the exact cause still remains a mystery.

Last week, in response to the die-off of the animals, the international community came together in Tashkent, Uzbekistan to strategize saving  the saiga from the many pressures that threaten its survival.

Led by the international Convention on Migratory Species (CMS), delegates came from Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Mongolia, and China, and included conservation organizations such as the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), Frankfurt Zoological Society (ZSL), World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and Flora and Fauna International (FFI), along local conservation organizations in the region.

Vast herds of saiga once thundered across the cold Asian grassland steppe in the millions, but the spindly-legged, bulbous-nosed antelope was relentlessly pursued by poachers toward the end of the last century. Saiga horns are used in traditional medicines in China and Southeast Asia, and a rapid increase in market demand quickly drove the species nearly to extinction – a 97 percent decline in only about 20 years.

With increased protection, however, the saiga population began a significant recovery. In the past few years, saiga numbers increased from around 50,000 to between 200,000  and 300,000.

“Significant disease-related die-offs are not new events for the saiga,” said Dr. Denise McAloose, Head of Pathology for the WCS Health Program. “Much smaller but serious die-offs have occurred over the past few decades. What is surprising and of great concern in this case is the size and extent of the event – entire herds suffered near-100 percent mortality.”

Dr. Stephane Ostrowski, WCS Health Coordinator for Central Asia added, “This shows the danger of allowing species to decline and the importance of disease as a risk factor. Mortality events that once had limited impact on the large global population now have the potential to drive the few remaining animals quickly to extinction.”

At the CMS meeting, government delegates and conservation organizations discussed not only disease but other increasing threats to saiga, including an upturn in poaching as the population increased, and the growth of development projects in the region. These development projects – especially roads, railroads, and border fences – threaten to block the great migrations that saiga must undertake in the region’s harsh steppe grasslands. Without the ability to move across this unforgiving landscape, saiga may be unable to avoid winter snow and ice events or find food during the hot, dry summers.

The group completed and agreed upon a five-year workplan that outlines actions to deal with these multiple threats. Plans include the need to more closely monitor and ramp up research on saiga health, increase anti-poaching efforts, and deal with the rapid increase in development in the region.

“The saiga is a fascinating animal,” said Peter Zahler, WCS Regional Director for Asia. “The species has evolved to survive in an extremely difficult environment, and while individuals appear to be very delicate, the species as a whole has shown great resistance.”

 He added, “Until this die-off, the story of the saiga was one of human-induced tragedy followed by one of the world’s real conservation success stories. This die-off is a major setback, but it is also a wake-up call.If we come together and focus our efforts, we can help bring back the saiga, along with one of the greatest migratory spectacles that this world has ever known. This is an extraordinarily resilient species – now it is up to us to give it the chance to come back.”

WCS has been working to save wildlife on Asia’s extensive northern steppe region since the 1980s. WCS participation in the CMS Saiga Conference of Parties was supported by the United States Forest Service International Programs (USFS-IP) and the Convention on Migratory Species.