As is fairly evident, I have expanded this blog and especially the Q&A segment to anything I find fascinating. I suppose I should change the blog’s name to “Southwest Jaguars, et al.” 😛 Anyway, I am thrilled to present one of the world’s experts on the endangered saiga antelope, Professor E.J. Milner-Gulland of Imperial College London. Her message of hope in the face of the ungodly slaughter of saiga (the world population fell from slightly over 1 million animals in the mid-70’s to around 50,000 today, because of the insatiable demands of – what else?- traditional Chinese medicine) is an inspiration to us all and I thank her profusely for this wonderful Q&A.
How did you get interested in wildlife conservation and biology?
I grew up in the countryside and so I have always been fascinated by nature. I had a great biology teacher at school, and really wanted to make a difference in the world. These three things together combined to make conservation science the obvious subject for me.
What about saigas attracted you to study them?
What’s not to like?! Generally I like ungulates and the saiga is such a beautiful and enigmatic species, it is a symbol of freedom roaming the steppe constantly and moving according to the seasons and the weather. Academically, they were a very little known species when I started work on them (at least, in the west), and there was so much about their ecology and life history that was intriguing and unresearched.
For people who might not be familiar with saigas, how do you describe them?
Unromantically, they are about the size of a goat, in the summer they have sandy fur on top and white belly, in the winter they have long and pale fur. Their most unusual feature is their protuberant nose, which swells further in rutting males. I’ve heard it said that they are ugly, but when they run in herds at high speed they are incredibly graceful.
The article I posted on this blog back in 2011 blamed a lot of saiga poaching on the urging of some conservationists to traditional Chinese medicine practitioners to switch from endangered rhino horn to the more plentiful saiga horn. I know there were a number of factors in play with the saiga’s demise (fall of the Soviet Union, economic hardship, etc), but do you agree with the general premise of the article (we robbed Peter to pay Paul)?
Not really. Mostly I don’t agree with this explanation of what happened because I don’t think that the Chinese medicine practitioners would have paid any attention to what the conservationists were telling them to do. I think this assigns too much influence to us. I think saigas were victims of massive geopolitical events, and in this context the conservationists’ urging is an irrelevance.
The decline of saiga has been so dramatic and sudden that it reminds me of the slaughter of bison in 19th century America. What was it like for you to be studying these animals in the midst of a man-made catastrophe of that magnitude?
It was terrible – in fact from that point on I really stopped being an ecologist (except for my own research interest) and turned into a conservation scientist. It’s not possible to keep on going with ecological studies, fascinating as they are, when your study species is heading fast towards the exit. So, this collapse started me on the path I am now, with virtually all my research focusing on human motivations and behaviours, and how to be more effective in conserving our planet for the benefit of both people and wildlife.
What are saiga like? By that I mean, how would you describe their “personalities”? Do they have any interesting rutting behaviors?
Saigas are flighty creatures, they are hard to keep in captivity and very difficult to approach. Which is just as well given their current plight. Often when you’re out on the steppe your saiga sightings consist of a few tan dots travelling very fast across the horizon. They “stot”, which means that as they run, individuals leap vertically into the air – biologists still don’t really know what this behaviour (which other antelopes do too) is for.
What are the main predators of saigas and what are their anti-predatory behaviors?
The main predators are wolves. Eagles and foxes may take babies, but basically the threat is wolves – and even then the adults are able to outrun them, and the main danger is during the birth season. There is very little cover on the steppe, and so saigas have developed a system in which the females come together in huge aggregations to give birth over just a few days – there can be thousands of babies lying still and unseen in the grass over a wide area, with their mothers coming back to them only a couple of times a day. That way, each individual baby’s chance of being killed by a wolf is much lower than if they were on their own. It’s called predator swamping. Another adaptation is that the babies are very large when they are born (the heaviest babies at birth of any ungulate, compared to the mother’s body weight). This means that they are very quick to be able to run, and don’t need to spend long hiding – within a couple of days it’s hard for a researcher to catch them, and within a week they are able to follow their mothers.
What kind of vocalizations to saigas make?
It’s a sort of a gruff moo. There’s nothing more magical than standing in the empty steppe at sunset, with no sign of habitation anywhere on the horizon, feathergrass waving in the sunlight, and listening to the mooing of a thousand female saigas coming back to feed their babies.
Since male saigas were heavily targeted by poachers the reproductive success of the species suffered greatly. Are things looking better, male-wise, and did you note any change in the sex-ratio of births?
Although there are still many fewer males per female than would be naturally observed in most of the populations, there seems not to have been a repeat of the major collapse in reproduction we saw in the early 2000s. It seems like as long as there are some males around (perhaps >2% of the population) then all females can conceive. I think this is maybe because as males have become more scarce people are focusing more on meat, which means the sex ratio of the animals killed is more balanced. It’s interesting about the sex-ratio of births – from biological theory you might expect a slight shift towards males, but we didn’t see it.
I have read of several mass die-offs of saiga in the past decade or so, but the causative agent seems to be a bit nebulous. Can you clarify your understanding of this phenomena?
My colleague Richard Kock at the Royal Veterinary College has been working with vets in Kazakhstan to try to understand the cause of these die-offs. It seems likely that it’s something to do with the quality or composition of the pasture, but we’re still not sure. There are some quite interesting hints that, for example, land use change (cutting of pasture for hay) and a general shift of the saiga distribution to the north (probably due to climate change) may be contributing factors, but there’s a lot more to do before we can say definitively what’s happening. Generally it seems to affect mothers in the period around calving, which may be when there is rich grass and they are particularly vulnerable because they’re lactating.
Can you briefly mention how the major saiga populations are doing and the main threats they currently face?
The overarching threat is still poaching for meat and horn. There is one population that is doing very well, and increasing fast – this is the Betpakdala population in Kazakhstan which is where there is a large-scale conservation programme going on, backed by international conservation organisations and government. The Ural population in Kazakhstan appears to be doing OK, while the trans-boundary Ustiurt population is suffering badly from continued poaching, and is very small now and still declining. It is also threatened by a border fence which the Kazakhstan government erected last summer – this seems to be affecting their ability to migrate to Uzbekistan in the winter, but we don’t have enough information to see how badly. In Russia there are no formal annual counts but a lot of concern that the population is suffering from heavy poaching and declining. Finally, in Mongolia there is less of an issue from poaching and more from competition with livestock, but the relatively small population (important because it’s of a different sub-species) seems to be stable or increasing.
Overall a threat for the future for all these populations will be the development of infrastructure as economies grow – we are seeing a lot of planning and construction of railways, roads and oil and gas installations across the saiga range, particularly in Kazakhstan. This suggests that landscape level conservation planning for the steppe as a whole is needed urgently, and that’s something we are working towards now.
What other types of wildlife do you see during your research on the steppes?
Lots of impressive birds – several species of raptor and also many other species. Quite a few reptiles. And the plant diversity there is amazing – if you go in the spring the steppes are awash with colour – tulips or poppies as far as you can see.
You have been a big proponent of involving the local population in conservation. Do you feel that the lessons you have learned with saiga can be applied elsewhere and as successfully?
Yes! In some ways every situation is unique, but there are many transferable lessons that we can learn, for example that the most effective way to engage with local people is by helping enthusiastic champions within a community to do conservation activities themselves, rather than you coming in from outside – this is needed in the beginning but it’s not sustainable as you’re not there all the time, and people don’t really feel any ownership if it’s outsiders who are the driving force.
What is the latest program you’ve instituted that targets teens & saiga conservation?
We have a couple – one is a three-country programme that is setting up Steppe Wildlife Clubs associated with local schools, which give young people a chance to find out about the ecology of their areas, enter competitions and do projects. These seem to be really catching on, and the great thing is that the club leaders are taking the initiative and we are helping them by providing materials and chances to get together for training and sharing ideas. Our other programme, in Uzbekistan, is setting up embroidery groups where older women teach traditional embroidery skills to young girls, which then provides them with a hobby and a chance to socialise, but also an income source and a sense of pride in their traditions. We’re selling their products on the international market and paying a premium to individuals and groups whose families don’t buy saiga meat or hunt saigas. You can see the products and some information about the meaning of the symbols on www.saigacraft.com.
What is it that you love (or strongly attracts you!) about saigas?
As I said before, saigas themselves have a quirky beauty and freedom. But I also love the wild steppe, which looks empty at first but is incredibly diverse once you actually get out and walk in it. And I really enjoy the area’s unique culture, and the people – I have so many friends now who I have worked with on saigas for 20 years or more. It’s always a bit by chance how you end up working on one species or area rather than another, but as soon as I started work in this region I felt comfortable, and knew it was the right place for me – I haven’t felt that way about other places I’ve worked.
What do you suggest that those of us in the West do to support saiga conservation?
The more people spread the word about saigas the better. People could join our facebook group to hear about the latest news on saigas and all the conservation work people are doing for them, leave comments and suggestions and get ideas about how to join in: https://www.facebook.com/groups/32140191371/. We also run a site called the Saiga Resource Centre, which has everything you would ever want to know about saigas, including videos, photos and reports.
If you would like to do more, take a look at the saigacraft website, and maybe buy one of the pieces of embroidery that local women have made. If you yearn to see the steppes and their wildlife for yourself, we run individually tailored tours to visit the saiga projects we support in Russia (for 4 or more people), which I can absolutely recommend as a life-changing experience. More information from email@example.com.
Your interests go beyond saigas- I’ve seen papers you’ve authored or so-authored on bushmeat, conservation/human well-being, hunting quotas, etc., etc. What are you currently working on or will be doing so very soon?
We have loads going on in our group! The latest news is that I’ve just started a really exciting new project in Uganda, with IIED and WCS, as well as the Uganda Wildlife Authority. We’re trying to understand the links between poverty and illegal wildlife hunting, and find more effective ways to control the trade in illegal wildlife while also supporting poor people and ensuring that they benefit from the wildlife they live with, rather than suffering the costs. Take a look at http://www.iccs.org.uk where we have pages about each of our projects.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
One thing I’ve learnt from nearly 25 years working with saigas is – hang on in there however grim things seem, because you can make a difference in the longer run. And perhaps the main thing I’ve learnt from my general work in conservation is always to be open, collaborative and straight with people – in the end the only path to success is to work together