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Ulanbaatar, Mongolia -- Populations of the critically endangered Mongolian saiga antelope (hereinafter ‘saiga’), which occurs only in Mongolia, have plummeted by 40 percent following large die-offs due to a harsh winter, World Wildlife Fund (WWF) announced today. The findings of a population survey show around 3,000 saiga remaining after the brutal winter kept them from their food source of natural hay.
“Mongolia’s saiga antelope population has been suffering for several years now from a combination of disease and harsh weather conditions, so this news is extremely worrying,” said Chimeddorj Buyanaa, WWF-Mongolia Conservation Director. “WWF and the Government of Mongolia are doing everything they can to prevent them going extinct but urgent action and support is needed.”
The saiga population has suffered a roller coaster ride since 2001 when the numbers dropped to only 750 animals following a summer drought and a heavy winter. However, thanks to continuous conservation efforts by WWF and the Government of Mongolia, the population increased to 14,000 and its range increased by 13 percent in 2014. But then an outbreak of goat plague reduced the numbers to 5,000 in 2017. Poaching has also reduced the saiga population.
To help conserve the species over the winter, WWF-Mongolia specialists and officers took emergency actions such as putting additional hay, forage food and salt licks in saiga distribution ranges. They monitored the results of their emergency actions through automatic cameras placed in the field and found that the saiga individuals were feeding on the hay.
The survey of the saiga populations was performed by WWF-Mongolia in April 2018 in order to identify the current population size and compare it to those in the previous year, in addition to assessing their mortality rates. The team used a transect method for the survey within the saiga distribution range and counted about 3,000 saiga individuals, resulting in a 40 percent reduction from the March 2017 data.
According to the researchers, the saiga distribution areas are still lacking natural hay to be eaten, forcing the populations to travel large distances in search of food. This means that strategic conservation actions are needed, including setting aside breeding and calving areas for conservation and preservation of the saiga herds. In addition, detailed studies on saiga genetic survivability/capability are required to prevent this unique, globally important species from going extinct in Mongolia.