CITES 2019

New Protections for Critically Endangered Saiga Antelope

By Enkhtuvshin Shiilegdamba | August 30, 2019

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[Note: This commentary was originally published at Mongabay]

The saiga antelope has great cultural, historical, and ecological importance to Mongolia. So I was proud to be advisor to the Mongolian Government Delegation at the 18th Meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in Geneva to ensure that the saiga received critically needed extra trade protections that will safeguard its survival for generations to come.

Saiga antelope are classified as Critically Endangered on the IUCN “Red List” of threatened species. Disease and poaching have taken their toll on this ancient animal. Saiga antelope historically ranged into Yukon and Alaska and co-existed with woolly mammoths during the Ice Age. Today, they roam the vast areas of Eurasia, including Mongolia, but they are facing significant threats to their survival.

The majority of the 183 governments that are Parties to CITES gathered this week for their global meeting to regulate or prohibit commercial trade in threatened and endangered species. The Mongolian Government introduced a proposal to transfer the saiga antelope from CITES Appendix II to Appendix I. Appendix II allows sustainable and legal international trade; Appendix I prohibits all international commercial trade and thus provides strengthened protection.

Mongolia has been a Party to CITES since 1996, and this was our first CITES proposal. We are a small and developing country, but we are rich in the precious biodiversity of Central Asia. Global saiga populations used to be widespread and numbered well over 1 million individuals in the 1970s. However, the species repeatedly experienced drastic declines, reaching an all-time low of 50,000 animals in the early 2000s.

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Male saiga antelope. Photo ©Misroslav Bobek.

Most recently, saiga antelopes have undergone significant mass mortalities throughout their range. In 2015, more than 200,000 saiga died in central Kazakhstan due to the bacterium Pasteurella multocida. In 2016, due to the Peste des Petits Ruminants virus (PPR), more than 50 percent (more than 5,000) of the saiga population in Mongolia died in a very short period, leaving us with fewer than 5,000 individuals.

Following the disease outbreak, harsh winter effects continued to take a toll on the saiga population, leading to further declines and leaving close to 3,000 individuals. The PPR virus is currently spreading widely in our region and it is only a matter of time until it spreads into saiga populations outside of Mongolia.

With potential disease threats, saiga cannot withstand the additional challenges of poaching and illegal trade. Saiga males are targeted and killed for their horn, which is used in traditional medicine in Asia. With the total remaining saiga population in Mongolia standing at less than 3,000, we are deeply concerned about both illegal trade and any potential commercial trade.

Any commercial trade from other range states where saiga are faring somewhat better will stimulate high demand for saiga horn and could lead to uncontrolled poaching and wildlife trafficking — and may indeed wipe out the remaining small and struggling saiga population of our country.

Mongolia is a vast country with low population density, which makes patrol operations particularly difficult. Given the high demand for saiga horn and this animal’s susceptibility to disease resulting in high levels of mortality across the population, the action taken in Geneva this week to strengthen saiga’s global protection was essential.

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Male saiga antelope. Photo ©Misroslav Bobek.

The United States co-sponsored Mongolia’s proposal to move saiga to Appendix I. After productive discussion by all saiga range governments — including Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan, in addition to Mongolia — it was clear that there was not support of all range states for moving the species to Appendix I.

However, all range governments agreed to an amendment of the proposal to leave the species in Appendix II but adopt a “zero quota” on any saiga specimens from the wild for commercial purposes. The Conference agreed to this compromise by consensus. The species therefore remains in Appendix II, but has received additional protection of wild saiga from international commercial trade.

The saiga now has a better chance to beat extinction. This is a critical issue for my government and the people of Mongolia, and we greatly appreciated the support from all range governments, including our co-sponsor the United States. Mongolia is not against the sustainable use of wildlife and wildlife products if populations are stable and viable based on science. But now is not the time for the saiga horn to be traded commercially, especially considering the critical situation of saiga in Mongolia.

CITES is a Convention that takes decisions based on rigorous scientific data, often focusing on lesser-known species. That is the case with saiga. We appreciate the support of saiga range governments and all other CITES parties. We’re proud to be the generation that agreed to protect this species of great cultural and ecological importance — one that, after tens of thousands of years, continues to be a symbol across Central Asia.

Enkhtuvshin Shiilegdamba is Mongolia Country Director for WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society) and an advisor to the Mongolian government delegation to the 2019 Conference of the Parties to CITES.

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