A well-meant but misguided decision by conservationists is driving a central Asian antelope to the brink of extinction, a report claims today.
Poachers who were encouraged to hunt the saiga, an antelope of the steppes of Russia and Kazakhstan, to ease the pressure on rhino in Africa and Asia, have brought about a catastrophic 97 per cent fall in the animal's numbers in a decade, according to this week's New Scientist magazine.
The decline from more than a million to fewer than 30,000 is through to be the most sudden and severe population crash of a large mammal. The saiga has been hunted, says the report by Fred Pearce, a science writer, because in the early 1990s the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and other conservation groups actively promoted the saiga horn as an alternative to the horn of endangered rhinos, which is used as an ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine.
The antelopes have always been hunted for their meat, horns and skins, but even though tens of thousands were killed in the past, the herds were able to replace their numbers.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, a poaching free-for-all has developed, with gangs using motorcycles and high-powered rifles to bring down the animals. The killing spree is driven by the new market for horn in China, where saiga horn now fetches about $100 (£60) a kilogram, after being illegally smuggled by train from Moscow to Beijing, or across the border from Kazakhstan.
"The plains used to be black with these antelopes, but now you can go out there and not see any at all," says Dr Abigail Entwistle, director of the Eurasia programme of the conservation charity Fauna and Flora International. "This is the most sudden change in fortune for a large mammal species recorded in recent times."
Comparisons are being made with the decline in the African elephant, which went in the 1980s from 1.5 million to 625,000 when ivory poaching spread out of control. But the saiga's decline is greater and far steeper.
According to the report, WWF began a campaign in 1991 in Hong Kong to publicise saiga horn as an alternative to rhino horn, which when ground up is widely used in traditional Chinese medicine as a remedy. Rhinoceros populations in Africa and Asia have also been devastated by poachers hunting them for their horns.
The following year, the report says, the United Nations Environment Programme appointed Esmond Bradley Martin, a WWF ecologist and one of the word's leading rhino experts, as a special envoy to persuade pharmacists across Asia to accept saiga horn instead. But the resulting upsurge in demand for saiga quickly led to an enormous increase in killing. "I supported the use of saiga antelope horn as a substitute for rhino horn from the early 1980s," Mr Bradley Martin is quoted as saying in the report.
"In my opinion it was the correct policy at the time. But I stopped around 1995, when I read about the start of the sharp decline in saiga populations," he said.
One of the key features of the population crash is that the male antelopes have been taken out of the population and so the fecundity of the herds has been destroyed. According to Eleanor Milner-Gulland, of Imperial College London, the leading Western expert on the saiga, there is no known case in biology where the sex ratio has gone so wrong that fecundity has disappeared in this way.
Dr Milner-Gulland says that between 1993 and 1998, saiga numbers across central Asia almost halved, to around 600,000. Then, with most of the males gone, the population crash began in earnest, with numbers halving each year since, until last year's census recorded just 30,000 individuals.
Conservationists have struggled to keep up with the scale of the disaster, and did not put the saiga on the Red List of critically endangered species until October 2002. In the coming months they will launch an emergency appeal to rescue wild herds.
Dr Entwistle says: "We think we have probably got just two years to save the species. The trouble is, most people have never heard of the animal, so it is hard to raise funds."
Hunters are unlikely to drive the saiga to total extinction but without an unexpected reversal in its fortunes it will soon be confined to zoos and a few small reserves.
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