Good news has lately come out of the windblown drylands of Central Asia concerning one of the more eccentric-looking – and imperilled – of the world’s hoofed mammals. 

A relative bumper crop of fawns has been recorded for the smallest of Kazakhstan’s three main populations of saiga: tawny antelope sporting swollen snoots. Researchers with the Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity of Kazakhstan (ACBK) counted some 530 newborn saiga among the Ustyurt Plateau herd. Given last year’s fawn count for this population was a mere four, this mass calving event is welcome news indeed.

Image © Bakhtiyar Taikenov/ACBK

The saiga of the Ustyurt Plateau – a roughly 200,000-square-kilometre expanse of desert and semidesert between the Caspian and Aral seas – migrate between summer range in Kazakhstan and winter pasture in Uzbekistan (and, historically anyway, Turkmenistan). Close to 6,000 adult saiga were counted in the population last year, an encouraging rise from a mere 1,900 in 2015. But the Ustyurt head are still a shadow of what they once were; the population numbered some 265,000 as recently as the late 1980s.

The Ustyurt saiga are one of three main populations of the species in Kazakhstan, where by far the majority of the antelope are found. The other two populations, the Betpak-dala saiga of central Kazakhstan and the Ural saiga north of the Caspian Sea (some of which stray across the Russian border), are much larger. At the global scale, there are two other remaining major saiga stocks, one in Russia and one in Mongolia.

"As the smallest saiga population in Kazakhstan, the Ustyurt population is at heightened risk of extinction," Bakhtiyar Taikenov of ACBK told "The discovery of this mass calving is therefore very encouraging."

Saiga have something of a natural boom-and-bust existence. Does can breed as young as seven months old and commonly have twins – the "twinning" rate may be as high as 65 percent – and amid productive conditions herds may grow by as much as 60 percent in a single year (according to the IUCN). They’re also vulnerable to large-scale mortality events, though. Such events may result from fierce winters – particularly dzhuts, where formation of an ice crust over snowpack prevents saiga from foraging; 80,000 saiga in Kazakhstan died in a dzhut event in 1953 and 1954. Severe summer drought can also kill the antelope in droves, as can disease outbreaks, which have been responsible for a number of grim mass saiga die-offs in recent years. 

In 2015, for example, haemorrhagic septicaemia felled more than 200,000 saiga of the Betpak-dala population. That bacterial affliction may have been ushered in by higher-than-usual temperatures and humidity – a weather pattern that’s been linked to major saiga mortality events in the past. (This potential connection raises concerns about what climate change has in store for the species.) In 2017, ovine rinderpest ("goat plague") knocked off a distressingly large number of the distinct Mongolian subspecies of saiga.

"The saiga are built for catastrophe and bounce back," University of Oxford zoologist E.J. Milner-Gullard told Mongabay in 2017.

The yin-yang of saiga baby booms and mass die-offs have overlapped with the extreme effects of humankind on saiga numbers, which globally have whipsawed dramatically in modern times. Saiga historically roamed much of the Eurasian steppes and semi-deserts from southeastern Europe into Mongolia and China. In the Pleistocene, they were more widespread yet: Saiga grazed ice-age Great Britain as well as Beringian North America. The antelope’s bulbous snouts are adaptations to the harsh countryside they inhabit, helping filter out dust as well as warm the frigid air saiga inhale in winter. Semi-nomadic and migratory, the saiga’s born to move, tracking greenup and weather along travel corridors that may exceed 1,000 kilometres between winter and summer ranges. These on-the-go herds may number in the thousands.

Overhunting, habitat loss, and the severing of migration routes saw the great Eurasian saiga pastures shrink precipitously over the past few centuries. There may have been as few as 1,000 saiga left in the early 1900s, but by the 1970s the total population had climbed above a million. The fall of the Soviet Union and its impact on regional economies, environmental regulations, and international trade opened the doors to rampant poaching for saiga meat and horns (valued on the Asian medicinal market). About 95 percent of the entire saiga stock was decimated in the 1990s and early 2000s

Classed as Critically Endangered by the IUCN in 2002, saiga rebounded once again: In Kazakhstan, their numbers increased from about 21,000 in 2003 to several hundred thousand by the mid-2010s. Especially given the great blow of the 2015 contagion, conservationists were heartened last year to estimate the Kazakhstan saiga population at some 334,400 animals (a case in point of how quickly saiga can dust themselves off, so to speak, from a mass mortality event).