Each spring since 2007, scientists have scoured Kazakhstan’s Ustyurt Plateau for baby saiga antelope. Because this population of the critically endangered species is the country’s smallest and most imperiled, the results are usually not encouraging.
In 2018, for instance, scientists found a total of 58 calves living in these southwestern steppes. In 2019, that number dropped to four newborns.
This decline makes the May discovery of 530 saiga calves hunkered down in the knee-high grass a welcome sign of a possible baby boom for an animal hunted nearly to extinction.
As recently as the 1980s, millions of adult saiga—known for their comical, trunk-like noses—roamed the Ustyurt Plateau. But after the Soviet Union collapsed, demand for the antelopes’ horns grew in traditional Asian medicine markets, and poachers descended, reducing populations across their Central Asian range.
Then, in 2015, a lethal bacterial outbreak, which killed around 200,000 of these goat-size animals, dramatically hobbled herds. In short order, more than 70 percent of the remaining population disappeared. In a promising turnaround, a 2019 census reported that the Kazakh population had rebounded to 334,400 animals—more than double the number of saiga found two years prior. (Read more about the saiga antelope mass die-off.)
Not only is the number of baby saiga a good sign, but the aggregation of adults that birthed them is the largest anyone has seen in this area in almost 10 years, says Albert Salemgareyev, a saiga specialist at the nonprofit Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity of Kazakhstan (ACBK).
“It’s really exciting for all of us,” says Saken Dildakhmet, press secretary for the Kazakhstan government’s Committee of Forestry and Wildlife. (Fariza Adilbekova, national coordinator of the nonprofit Altyn Dala Conservation Initiative, translated Dildakhmet’s comments over a video call.)
“Due to good protection and patrolling efforts of the state rangers after the mass die-off, every year we’re seeing a steady growth of the saiga population,” says Dildakhmet.
Although poaching has declined, the sand-colored antelopes continue to face multiple threats. One critical threat was introduced by human infrastructure.
In 2014, the Kazakh government installed fencing along the country’s border with Uzbekistan in an attempt to prevent smuggling and drug trafficking.