Have you ever heard of a saiga? Probably not, and if things continue the way they are going, you may not ever see one either. At least, not in the wild.
The saiga is an unusual-looking type of antelope. Once, more than one million of them roamed parts of Russia and Kazakhstan. Today, there are only a few thousand left.
But I’m not talking about ancient history involving a mass slaughter from a less-civilized time. By “once” I mean all the way back in 1993. In just one decade, poachers have hunted the species to near extinction. And biologists say that it may be too late for populations to rebound.
Saiga are truly odd-looking beasts. They are fairly small — about one metre tall and weigh around 35 kilograms, with thick bodies, skinny legs, huge eyes and bulbous noses. The males have long, ringed horns, which sell for upwards of $150 per kilogram in China, where they are valued for use in traditional medicines. Prices like these attract poachers from all over Asia to the Russian steppe grasslands, where the antelope roam in herds.
In the past, saiga were hunted extensively for their meat and skins, but populations remained stable because the animals reproduce rapidly. However, when the Soviet Union collapsed, vast areas of Asia were opened up, enabling poaching gangs to roam freely and hunt from vehicles using high-powered rifles. Male saiga have been specifically targeted for their horns. Just 10 years ago herds of saiga blackened areas of Central Kazakhstan. Today, according to biologists cited in New Scientist, there are less than 4,000 left in this area, and they are all female. Unless males are brought in from elsewhere, these herds will soon disappear altogether.
Saving this antelope will be a huge challenge. The saiga isn’t exactly a poster child for an endangered species campaign. Most people have never heard of them and they aren’t the most beautiful creatures in the world. They weren’t even red-listed by the World Conservation Union as critically endangered until last fall because their numbers fell so unexpectedly quickly.
The saiga conflict will hardly be the last between humans and other species. With more than six billion people on the planet and the proliferation of modern technology, the world has become very small indeed. Human power has never been greater. And never has there been a greater need to wield this power with caution. The World Conservation Union lists 11,167 species as threatened with extinction. But we have only documented 10 to 20 per cent of all living things. So in reality, many more species are likely endangered, but we don’t yet know they exist!
The meteoric fall of the saiga should be a warning to us. If we can decimate such a prolific mammal over such a short period of time, we cannot afford to become complacent about any species. So when countries like Japan or Norway say that we should allow commercial whaling, or when provinces like British Columbia say that hunting grizzly bears for sport is fine because the province has a general idea of how many bears are left, the public should be very concerned. These days, it doesn’t take long for a species to go from plentiful to critical.
We may like to think that the slaughter of an animal on a massive scale is the kind of thing that occurred in the past, when the world was less civilized and we didn’t know any better. But the saiga have disappeared right under our noses in modern times. Canadians should be especially sensitive, having watched northern cod and hundreds of runs of Pacific salmon disappear. Our technologies and our sheer numbers have made us incredibly powerful, but clearly we have a lot of growing up to do.