Monitoring the population size and structure of endangered species is fundamental to conservation success, allowing trends to be detected so that timely action can be taken, and enabling researchers to address fundamental ecological questions. However monitoring is costly and time-consuming. Successful conservation also requires the engagement of local people. To address these issues, participatory monitoring, with professionals working alongside local people, is being trialed by conservationists worldwide.
The saiga antelope is Critically Endangered due to poaching following the break-up of the Soviet Union, and Kalmykia (Russia) is a key stronghold for the species. Current monitoring involves a database of observations made by rangers during anti-poaching patrols, while local engagement is through education programmes and livelihood enhancement. In this project we assessed the scientific robustness of the current monitoring programme, used the existing database to analyse correlates of saiga location and herd composition, and explored the potential for local people and professionals to combine forces through a participatory monitoring programme. We used observation experiments to calibrate the error and bias inherent in the proposed monitoring programme, and established an ongoing pilot project to evaluate the long-term potential for locally based saiga monitoring, as a component of sustainable management.
The project aims were:
• To analyse existing data on herd structure and distribution to assess factors influencing seasonal movement patterns, herd behaviour and composition
• To provide recommendations for robust ongoing scientific monitoring of saiga population dynamics
• To assess the reliability of locally based saiga monitoring through an analysis of the direction and magnitude of errors and biases in professional and villager observations, using an experimental approach.
• To evaluate the feasibility of establishing a village-based monitoring programme through assessment of cost, capacity and potential scientific and conservation outcomes.
• To establish a pilot programme for ongoing locally-based monitoring of saiga ecology.
The student team was: Elisabeth Whitebread and Helen O’Neill from Imperial College and Diana Obgenova and Khongor Mandzhiev from Kalmykia State University. Helen and Lizzie visited Kalmykia in May-June 2008 for joint fieldwork, and Diana and Khongor visted the UK in August for data analysis.