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Wild male saiga antelope (Saiga tatarica) visiting a waterhole at the Stepnoi Sanctuary, Astrakhan Oblast, Russia. Photo credit: Andrey Giljov [CC BY-SA 4.0 ]

By Susan Lieberman
April 21, 2019

Nearly a half century ago, we observed the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970. Only a year earlier, the Endangered Species Conservation Act had for the first time facilitated the creation of a list of animals “threatened with worldwide extinction” and prohibited their importation without a permit.

The 1969 act called for an international meeting to adopt a convention to conserve endangered species, and helped lead to the signing of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in 1973. On Dec. 28th of that year, the 1969 act was replaced by the Endangered Species Act of 1973. The ESA serves as the vehicle through which the United States implements the CITES convention.

A month from now the CITES Parties (governments that have joined the treaty) will meet for the 18th time since 1973, in Sri Lanka. There, CITES representatives will decide on proposed changes to the list of species on the Convention’s Appendices, among other decisions. There will be a great deal said about elephants, rhinos, giraffes, and other iconic species.

But another little-known and bizarre-looking species of antelope — the saiga — will attract attention as well. This year’s Earth Day theme is “Protect our Species,” and saiga should be high on that list.

The saiga antelope lives in the open steppe/grassland habitats of Central Asia in nomadic herds of up to 1,000 individuals, and undertakes irregular seasonal migrations. It is found in the wild in Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Mongolia. As recently as the 1970s, when Earth Day was first celebrated and CITES came into being, saiga numbered well over 1 million individuals.

However, the species repeatedly experienced drastic declines in the late 20th century, and the global population is estimated to have dropped precipitously. According to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, the saiga is now Critically Endangered, having declined by 80 percent just between 1998 and 2018.

The story of the saiga reminds us that when we observe Earth Day and pause to reflect on the crisis facing biodiversity today, the issue of international wildlife trade and the CITES Convention should be uppermost in our minds.

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The saiga antelope lives in the open steppe/grassland habitats of Central Asia in nomadic herds of up to 1,000 individuals. Photo credit: Rich Reading

The international wildlife trade today is vastly greater, more lucrative, and more global, than anyone could have imagined in the 1970s. Wildlife trafficking is a multi-billion dollar illegal trade run by corrupt syndicates. It threatens wildlife and local communities across the globe — from the Amazon, to the Congo, to the forests of Borneo, and beyond.

But if global leaders had not had the vision and commitment to agree on the CITES treaty 46 years ago, wildlife would be in far worse shape, and species whose trade is regulated or prohibited under the treaty today might have gone extinct due to the ravages of greed and this illicit unregulated commerce.

Although implementation and enforcement challenges remain, without CITES there would be no Appendix I prohibition on international commercial trade in parts and products of elephants, rhinos, tigers, pangolins, gorillas, African grey parrots, whales, sea turtles, and so many more. Likewise without CITES, we would not have the international regulation of sustainable, legal trade in more than 30,000 species on its Appendix II.

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Running saiga. Photo credit: Joel Berger/WCS

In the case of saiga, we see declines today resulting from habitat degradation, migration barriers in the form of infrastructure, changing climatic conditions that have altered food availability, and illegal hunting of males for their horns (an ingredient in traditional Asian medicine). Furthermore, a recent high-profile disease-caused mass mortality events in 2015–2016 resulted in the deaths of more than 200,000 saiga in Kazakhstan, more than half of the global population at that time.

Most recently a Peste des Petits Ruminants virus killed more than 60 percent of Mongolian saiga population in 2016–2017 just within 3-month period and now only some 3,000 Mongolian saiga are remaining. These types of disease pandemics with high mortality rate show high risks to the saiga population and to the population stability.

The critical state of the population means that any additional pressure from international trade will exacerbate the current situation. Range countries have voluntarily prohibited any killing of saiga for commercial horn trade, but that is not legally binding. Markets for saiga horn and medicines containing it continue to thrive in several countries, particularly Singapore, China (including Hong Kong), and Japan despite the fact that there is no recognized medicinal value to the horn.

Fortunately, Mongolia has proposed transferring the saiga to CITES Appendix I at the upcoming CITES meeting. That step would halt all international commercial trade and recognize the endangered status of this unique antelope. The U.S. has co-sponsored the proposal. Yet success and a chance to recover may elude the saiga at the upcoming CITES meeting. With some countries and others opposing the proposal, it is vital that the profit motive not stand in the way of conservation.

The effort to stop poaching and trafficking in saiga products so that vast herds of this unique animal may once again roam across the great steppe grasslands of their native range is emblematic of CITES’ enduring importance. It’s reminder that when it comes to conservation, all governments must think more about the impact of their policies than any potential financial gain — and in this case, support the proposal to put the saiga on Appendix I of CITES.

Only by taking strong action can we honor the nearly 50-year legacy of Earth Day by recommitting ourselves to the protection of the Earth’s increasingly vulnerable species.

Susan Lieberman is Vice President for International Policy at WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society).

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WCS saves wildlife and wild places worldwide through science, conservation action, education, and inspiring people to value nature.

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