In the mid 1990s the Ustyurt (Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan) saiga population numbered around 250,000 individuals; along with the other populations it suffered a dramatic collapse in the early 2000s. However, unlike the other populations in Kazakhstan, the Ustyurt population continued to decline; the lowest size recorded in Kazakhstan’s aerial surveys was 4,900 in 2010, and the latest count puts it at only 6,500 individuals, possibly the smallest of all the saiga populations.
The driver for this lack of recovery is escalating commercial poaching in both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, as the population is being hunted both for meat for local consumption and for its horns for international trade. How will a population already under so much pressure respond to yet more challenges to its survival?
Traditionally, the majority of the Ustyurt saiga population migrate seasonally between Kazakhstan (in the spring/summer) and Uzbekistan (in the autumn/winter). The saiga’s migration is an adaptation to its harsh environment, and much research shows that the behaviour has evolved to avoid the harsher winter weather in the north of its range while also taking advantage of better summer pastures in the north during the summer. Migration as a phenomenon is disappearing worldwide, and the saiga has been one of the few migratory ungulates still to display this behaviour, despite the enormous population declines it has endured. This suggests that migration is a key contributor to the saiga’s famous resilience and its recovery potential. Any interruption to this migration is likely to have both short and long-term effects.
New challenges Unfortunately, in 2012 a high barbed wire border fence was completed which effectively made crossing the border between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan impossible for migrating saigas. Additionally, another obstacle to this migration is the construction of a new railway line in Kazakhstan which crosses the range of two saiga populations, Betpak-Dala and Ustyurt. Due to be finished in 2016, the embankments and main rails are already finished, and will act as a physical barrier for saigas.
Based on experience of the effects of fences on migratory ungulates in other countries, and also based on the large-scale mortality that saigas experienced in the 1970s when canals were placed on their migratory routes, we could expect that in the short term saigas may attempt to cross the fence and die in the attempt, or at the least experience stress and injury. Any accumulations of saigas at the fence will be easy targets for poachers. This mortality could cause a substantial reduction in an already extremely depleted population. Saigas may try to walk along the railway line to find a crossing point, but at the moment there are none, and given the length of the line there is no way they can get round it.
In the longer term, a barrier across a migratory route is likely to lead to reduced recovery potential for the Ustyurt population, with a low-density isolated resident population in Uzbekistan, and the main population in Kazakhstan unable to access important winter resources. There are other populations of saigas whose movements have been curtailed in recent years, or whose movements were never as extensive as the Ustyurt migration (e.g. the pre-Caspian and Mongolian populations), and which survive. Therefore it seems unlikely that, if the population survives the short-term mortality, the fence will lead to the loss of the population. Instead, it will cause the curtailment or disappearance of the migration as a phenomenon, and the loss of the possibility for the population to again reach the sizes observed only 20 years ago.
So what can be done? Clearly the border fence is here to stay, as part of wider political decisions which are unconnected to nature conservation. But the government agencies involved need information on the potential consequences of the fence, and on possible ways to mitigate its impact, so that the Ustyurt saiga’s migration can continue as unimpeded as possible.
Three of the SCA’s partners (FZS, FFI and ACBK) recently commissioned a study into the impacts of both of these new threats, which proposed mitigation measures, some of which are being implemented by the Kazakhstan government and seem to be having a positive impact already. A number of SCA members contributed to the study.
With regards to the railway line, the report proposed 86 specially designed crossing points for saiga, where the slope of the embankment is much less steep, blending into the surrounding environment and creating a natural crossing. Other major threats which this railway brings are the roads and settlements which will spring up linked to stations which are to be built at set intervals all along the line. These settlements will not only allow easier access for poachers, but lead to disturbance and potential conflict with livestock and domestic dogs. Therefore, one of the recommendations has been to avoid building stations in recognised key saiga areas, or to ensure that activities at these stations are tightly controlled.
The most effective long–term solution with regards the fence will be to create proper corridors where there is no fence for saigas to negotiate. Another practical action that is known to work well is to remove the lowest strand and convert the next-lowest strand from barbed to plain wire, as well as making the fence visible to moving animals with some kind of flag or streamer. In the meantime, the border service has agreed to create 138 safe crossing points by removing the lower barbed wires of the fence in order to increase the space between the ground and the lowest wire, allowing saigas and other animals to pass safely underneath.
ACBK and FFI are collecting data on an ongoing basis from saigas which have been fitted with satellite collars, which will enable us to best advise government where saiga are most likely to attempt the cross the border, and where the fence needs to be adapted. The SCA in Uzbekistan is using local knowledge from our monitors to find out how saigas are negotiating the fence. Finally, the SCA is also investigating whether the latest in camera trapping technology will allow us to capture images of saigas if they cross the border; this could give us a good picture of the numbers that are making it across and where.
These recent measures seem to already be having an impact with initial reports noting that around 1000 saigas managed to negotiate the fence and overwinter in Uzbekistan this season.
The world’s large ungulate migrations are both a wonderful spectacle and key structuring forces for their ecosystems, altering the vegetation and soil dynamics, and determining the composition and diversity of their plant and animal species. Hence there is also the possibility that the Ustyurt ecosystem will undergo changes as a result of the fence, and the SCA will continue to focus its attentions on this critical issue.