Nearly 12,000 Critically Endangered Saiga Antelopes of the Ural population in western Kazakhstan were found dead over the a single week in May 2010. The dead were mostly females who had recently given birth, and the whole population was less than 40,000 animals. The Ural Saiga population is one of only five of this species remaining in the world, so these deaths represent a severe blow both to this population and to the species as a whole.
The species is well adapted to cope with disease epidemics,and has the potential for a very rapid population recovery. But currently, all the Saiga populations are at very low numbers, having been decimated by poaching. This means they are not resilient to such events, and there is a real possibility of the Ural population being lost if it is not given the chance to recover naturally.
The main threat to the Saiga is poaching, which was previously primarily driven by poverty and lack of other livelihood options. However, the lack of public awareness, and the lack of social constraints, are important contributing factors to the persistence of Saiga poaching.
This SOS - Save Our Species project, implemented by the Saiga Conservation Alliance (SCA), attempted to turn recent setbacks for this species into a mobilization of public support for Saiga conservation by acting fast while Saigas are at the forefront of people's concerns.
In the public awarness actions, there was a particular focus on children, activities such as a Saiga Festival, artistic and theatrical events in schools, and promotional events representing ecological field visits and showing Saiga videos. These approaches have been highly successful in influencing public opinion in all other parts of the Saiga range, but have not been carried out before in Ural.
These tried and tested methods of exciting the imagination and involving people in conserving their natural and cultural heritage can turn people's concern and grief for the Saiga into positive action. Local communities are the best guardians of the species, as they are able to change the attitudes and behaviours of their family, friends and neighbours. In this way we hope to turn a conservation disaster into the foundations for an ongoing engagement with local community in the Ural region, and a better future for the Saiga, as well as an opportunity for joint work among saiga conservation organizations that will lead to strong collaborations in the future.