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In Kazakhstan, 60 Rare Antelope Shot Dead As Poachers Hit Again


A photo of a dead saiga with its horns cut off
Dozens of dead saiga antelope were found this week in Kazakhstan in the latest evidence of poaching of the critically endangered animal that roams the steppes of Russia, Central Asia, and Mongolia.

The 60 or so carcasses were discovered on the arid steppes of northwestern Kazakhstan, shot dead and with their horns cut off.

The saiga, with its distinctive tubular nose and bulging eyes, is one of the world's oldest and strangest-looking mammals. A relic of the Ice Age, it once lived alongside mammoths and saber-toothed cats.

The species, however, is at risk of disappearing. Its total population has declined by 90 percent over the past two decades, from 1 million in the early 1990s to just over 100,000 today.

And poachers are the main culprits.

PHOTO GALLERY: The Sad Saga Of The Saiga
"The vast majority of the population decline from the late 1990s to the middle of the 2000s was to do with poaching. Almost all of it," says Eleanor Milner-Gulland, who heads the Saiga Conservation Alliance, a network of researchers and conservationists working to study and protect the antelope.

Illegal hunting caused the extinction of the antelope in China -- where their horns are used in traditional medicine -- in the 1960s.

Kazakh authorities have taken steps to reverse the trend, establishing new protected areas and amending legislation to crack down on wildlife traffickers. As a result, local saiga numbers appear to have stabilized in recent years.

But poaching remains rife and catching offenders in the isolated steppes that are home to the antelope continues to pose a major challenge for Kazakhstan's cash-strapped police.

Villager Tynyshkali Sarsenkhalykov lives close to the site where the dead animals were discovered this week. He says large herds of saiga have become a rare sight in the area, as have law-enforcement officers.

"There are only 11 houses in this village and not a single police officer. The only one we had retired in March," he says. "The saiga population is not big. Sometimes you see a dozen of them, but you don't see hundreds of them like you did before."

Conservationists have long warned that the collapse of the Soviet Union, by reopening borders, has given rise to a thriving black market for saiga horns.

In Kazakhstan, a pair of horns fetches around $80 on the black market, a substantial sum by local standards.

Many Chinese believe that the pinkish, ribbed horns of the male saiga can help cure the common cold and have aphrodisiacal properties.

"They are also used as a cooling drink, a cooling substance," says Milner-Gulland. "In traditional Asian medicine, there's a wide range of things they're used for, like liver or blood diseases."

The slaughter of saiga antelope has been compounded by several mysterious die-offs.

Some 12,000 saigas were found dead in western Kazakhstan in May 2010 and 450 more in May 2011. Another 1,000 antelope have been found dead over the past two months.

Some ecologists have blamed the deaths on toxic chemicals from the fuel used at the Baikonur space-launch site in central Kazakhstan.

Milner-Gulland and other experts, however, point to a digestive disorder caused by eating too much rich and wet forage.

Written and reported by Claire Bigg in Prague, with additional reporting by Zhanagul Zhursin in Kazakhstan
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    Claire Bigg

    Claire Bigg covers Russia, Ukraine, and the post-Soviet world, with a focus on human rights, civil society, and social issues.

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    Zhanagul Zhursin

    Zhanagul Zhursin is a correspondent in Aqtobe for RFE/RL's Kazakh Service. After graduating from Zhubanov University, she worked at the local TV station in Aqtobe. Zhursin also served as the editor in chief of local media outlets. She joined RFE/RL in 2011 and has been working as a broadcast and print journalist for more than 25 years.