Sevara Sharapova, UNDP in Uzbekistan
The Saiga antelope is a critically endangered species that once roamed across Europe and Asia. Now, however, their habitat is restricted to certain areas in Russia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Mongolia and Uzbekistan. (See: UN names Russia’s most endangered animal and Why biodiversity?)
Poaching in the late 1980s has been recognized as one of the main causes of the decline of this antelope, considered the flagship species of the Eurasian steppe.
In order to protect the Saiga, its habitat became a protected area in 1991 (classified category IV by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (pdf)).
It is the largest such area in Uzbekistan, totalling one million hectares. The habitat is located in the Ustyurt plateau, where the antelope migrate and give birth to their young each spring. (See: Living at peace with nature)
Because of the importance of the area to the antelope’s reproduction, especially near the ruins of the Beleuli fortress, scientists have referred to many parts of the plateau as a saiga maternity hospital.
Despite the fact that the protected area for the Saiga has existed for more than 20 years, the Saiga population has not increased as a result. In fact, it has experienced such a stark drop that in 2008, the Saiga was included in the Red Book of Uzbekistan as a vulnerable declining species.
One of the reasons for this distressing situation is that the protected area does not have its own protective staff, finances, or management body. It also has no status as a legal entity. What’s more, the territory of the current protected area does not completely match the areas where the Saiga migrate for winter and doesn’t include suitable watering holes.
Given these limitations, it’s not surprising that the local population doesn’t know a lot about the existence of the protected area.
However, the region’s local people have noted the disappearance of saiga antelope and have suggested that a protection area should be created in order to preserve these animals.
In order for the current protected area to achieve its intended purpose, it needs to be recognized as a legal entity. This will allow for other necessary changes to be made, specifically in terms of the area’s reorganization.
To help with this, our project team has worked with our partners to develop the package of documents needed to reorganize the habitat/species management area. This work has resulted in the development of a common proposal to:
- Give the protected area (covering over one million hectares) status as a legal entity with its own staff and finances
- Extend the protected area further north and include two areas of the Ustyurt plateau’s chink, which contain key drinking areas for the Saiga and as well as rich biodiversity worth preserving.
The proposal was submitted to the Ministry of Finance, which is currently considering the decision to transfer staff to the protected area.
If accepted, the proposal will then be presented to the Council of Ministers of Karakalpakstan, who will make a final decision regarding the reorganization of the existing protected area.
The Saiga has high reproductive potential, so even a little effort to protect it will have a big pay-off, and the Saiga will stand a real chance of being saved.