Stepnoy Sanctuary welcomes new generation of saiga

IFAW-funded equipment help Stepnoy Sanctuary staff place signs announcing road closures to protect saiga breeding. PHOTO: © Galina KalmykovaThis blog comes to us from Vladimir Kalmykov, Director of the Stepnoy Sanctuary. –MV

Every year at the beginning of May, Stepnoy Sanctuary staff have their work cut out for them as saiga antelope calving season has begun.

With equipment from the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), members of the sanctuary work to prepare for new life by installing bright blue signs denoting road closures by the breeding area and ensuring fire prevention measures are ready and in place. With all the preparation, the Sanctuary's staff cannot relax for a moment, monitoring the breeding area designated by a special order of the Government of the Astrakhan Oblast (Region).

For the past five years, weather and rains have nurtured food growth for the saiga and moderately warm weather helped avoid deaths of newborns from overheating or hypothermia.

However this May, the Astrakhan Oblast and the rest of Russia was plagued with bad weather. At the sanctuary, hurricane force winds tore up saiga routes and a lack of rain resulted in lower plant production. Because of these weather conditions, only 500 saiga females came to the “maternity ward” in the Stepnoy Sanctuary. Due to more favorable weather conditions, the majority of the calving took place to the west of the sanctuary in the Chyornye Zemli State Nature Reserve in the Republic of Kalmykia.

Camera traps captured the newborn saiga calves on the steppe.

Despite the lower than average numbers, all saiga mothers in the sanctuary gave birth successfully. Mothers who ventured west to Chyornye Zemil returned to the sanctuary 10 days after the birthing period once the weather improved.

Saiga are an ancient breed, once living alongside woolly mammoths and sabre-toothed tigers. One of the fastest mammals, able to retain a speed of 80km per hour, these antelope are hunted for their horns which are used in traditional medicine. Due to poaching, saiga populations have been reduced by 90 percent in the past 10 years.

This year’s calves are already confidently running around the steppe. Based on the expert assessment, we have projected a small increase in population numbers and higher survival rates of the mature saiga males. This increase in numbers and survival is thanks to the constant, dedicated work of the Stepnoy Sanctuary staff and the support of IFAW and the Chyornye Zemli Nature Reserve.

-- VK

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