Saiga Antelope:
Protection in Kazakhstan and International Law

January 12, 2021Lu Shegay


Saiga antelope, also known as Saiga tatarica, is a nomadic herding and critically endangered species that originally inhabited Europe and Asia, but currently lives across Kazakhstan, Russia, and Mongolia. Saiga tatarica is the only species from the genus Saiga. There are two subspecies recognized, which are Saiga tatarica tatarica mostly inhabiting Asian regions and constituting the major global population, and Saiga tatarica mongolica specifically inhabiting Western Mongolia. Nowadays, the dominant subspecies of these antelopes are found in Russia and three areas in Kazakhstan, which are Ural, Betpak-dala, and Ustiurt.

The saiga antelope has always been and is still a demanding animal not only at the domestic level, but also for export used for various purposes, such as food consumption, medicine, hunting trophies, decorations, and personal amusement. However, saiga antelope is currently a critically endangered species, and these animals are listed under the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. Also, saiga antelope is included in the Red Book of the Republic of Kazakhstan, which lists rare and endangered species of plants and animals. Saiga antelopes, as being critically endangered species, are likely to face an extremely high risk of extinction.


The decrease in the population of saiga antelope is regularly observed in Kazakhstan, even nowadays. There are several reasons, including abiotic, biotic, and anthropogenic factors, and each will be discussed in this section. These species may starve to death or become malnourished because of the depth of snow, and such starvation and malnourishment usually occur approximately every ten years. Another factor of the decrease of the saiga population is droughts, which increase the death of these species due to diseases, lack of food, water, and etc. Usually, in the drought period, animals become thinner, and female saigas experience infertility. Sometimes young species of saiga antelopes may even die from dehydration.

The reason influencing the population of saiga antelopes is poaching and other types of commercial activities. Poaching is the most serious and common activity in Kazakhstan, which greatly affects the population of saiga antelope. Killing saiga antelopes for commercial purposes causes high numbers of dead animals. Hunting saiga antelopes is generally purposed to obtain meat, but their skin is also used for making box calf and suede. Saiga horns are the most attractive part of the animals to poachers and hunters. Their horns have a great value in Asian medicine, and in 1965-1992, one to forty-two tonnes of saiga horns were being exported from Kazakhstan each year. The saiga antelope is the most valuable species in Kazakhstan for hunting. However, due to the existence of poaching, corruption, illegal actions, and lack of regulatory bodies, killing saiga antelopes still remains the main reason for the decline of the population.

When the ban on rhinoceros horns was introduced, saiga horns became very popular in the market because of the equal value to rhinoceros horns, and saiga horns cost much cheaper. Saiga horns are commonly used in China for adding the extract to the cooling drinks and elixirs. These cooling drinks are widely spread in China, and people believe that such drinks can help cure fever and “bring down one’s ‘heatiness.’” Also, people buying these drinks may find the ingredients saying that the drink contains saiga antelope horns. It was named as “cooling effect” in Asian countries, and also used for medicine in Malaysia, Singapore, and China. If the trade is not managed properly, this could lead to the extinction of this endangered species.

"Saiga Fight 3" by USFWS Headquarters is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Legal protection


In Kazakhstan, the Constitution has superior power over the laws. The international agreements have priority over the laws, Codes follow the Constitution, and Laws are under the Codes. Laws in Kazakhstan contain the general provisions, clarify the ambiguity, provide explanations of different concepts, whereas Codes include the punishments for violations of certain provisions of both the Codes and Laws. There is a Law of the Republic of Kazakhstan “On the Protection, Reproduction, and Use of Wildlife,” which creates general provisions and regulations for wildlife use. However, the protection of animals from cruelty, injuries, harm, and illegal behavior is only covered by the Administrative Code and the Criminal Code of the Republic of Kazakhstan. Thus, the punishments for violations of these provisions derive only from the Administrative Code and the Criminal Code.

For instance, the Administrative Code provides that violations of the requirement of wildlife use and/or hunting rules are punished by warning or fine in the amount of five monthly calculated indexes (MCI) for natural persons, fine in the amount of twenty-five MCI for small entrepreneurship, fine in the amount of fifty MCI for medium entrepreneurship, fine in the amount of one hundred MCI for large entrepreneurship. Hunting, in general, is legal in Kazakhstan under special permissions obtained from authorities.

The Criminal Code of the Republic of Kazakhstan contains the article regarding illegal hunting, which says that illegal hunting with the use of explosive substances and other means of mass destruction of animals, and with the use of air, auto, moto transports, including snowmobile equipment, or small boats is punished by a fine in the amount of up to three hundred MCI, or disciplinary works, or public works for up to two hundred and forty hours, or arrest for up to seventy days, with the deprivation of a right to be employed on particular positions or to perform a certain activity for up to one year. These provisions demonstrate that the protection of wildlife is insufficient because a person can be liable under the Criminal Code only while using explosive substances or means of mass destruction during hunting. It also means that persons who do not possess a license for hunting, while killing animals with a gun, will not be liable under the Criminal Code just because they did not use explosive substance or means of mass destruction.

In 1999, the Red Book of the Republic of Kazakhstan was published, which includes currently 257 species and subspecies of rare and endangered plants and animals. Forty mammals are included in that list, and saiga antelopes are among them. The provisions of the Red Book are regulated by the Law of the Republic of Kazakhstan “On Specially Protected Territories.” The seizure of rare and endangered species of animals, their parts or derivatives is allowed in exceptional cases by the decision of the Government of the Republic of Kazakhstan for breeding in special conditions for scientific, reproductive, and commercial purposes with the subsequent release to wild; development of national types of hunting; scientific research; selection. It is prohibited to perform such actions, which can lead to the death of rare and endangered species of animals, and to the reduction of the population or destruction of their habitat, except for the cases mentioned above. In 2010, the acting Minister of the agricultural activity of Kazakhstan promulgated a decree prohibiting usage, hunting, and seizure of saiga antelopes, except for scientific purposes. This decree also established a moratorium on hunting saiga antelopes for ten years. Recently, it was announced that the moratorium was prolonged till 2023.

Kazakhstan has been historically inhabited by nomadic people, and hunting and obtaining animals’ meat for food have always been and are still a part of the culture. Animals in Kazakhstan are at the lowest protection since even such felonies as homicide, rape, theft, larceny probably provide a fair punishment, but these articles are not enforceable. One of the main problems of the lack of protection of animals, especially critically endangered species, such as saiga antelopes, is laid in the culture of people and history, which have a tight connection between each other. There are still some areas in Kazakhstan, where people are living as nomadic groups, considering the national traditions and customs. Thus, while some people in Kazakhstan are still living in poor conditions, animals, including saiga antelopes, will still be hunted for food. The good news is that, at least, there is a law on the protection of wildlife use and the established moratorium on hunting saiga antelopes, except for scientific purposes. The bad news is that the laws and legislative acts are not working, animals are not protected properly by the law, and the cultural background in Kazakhstan does not allow people to reconsider their attitude towards animals.

In 2015, more than 200 000 species of saiga antelope died within three weeks in Central Kazakhstan. The main reason observed was the climatic conditions, such as high humidity level and temperature that led to the outbreak. These animals are vulnerable to mass mortality and affected by extreme climatic changes and environmental stressors. And although at the beginning of 2019 the population of saiga antelopes has more than doubled for the past two years, the management of the population, proper law regulation, elimination of poaching, and corruption are measures that are urgently needed to preserve these species.

Saiga Antelope, by Nikolai Denisov,

International law

Saiga antelope is listed in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species under the category of critically endangered species meaning that these species have an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild. To be categorized as endangered species, the population of such species must either be reduced, or when the species occupy the area less than 10 square kilometers, or the decline of the population must be less than 250 mature individuals, or the number of mature individuals must be less than 50, or there must be at least 50% of chance to go extinct in the wild for over ten years. In 2015, saiga antelope crossed the thresholds between the categories of critically endangered and endangered species. According to the observed, estimated, and projected declines, more than half of the population over three generations met the high risk of mortality, diseases, environmental factors, and poaching, and the species now meet the thresholds of the category of endangered species. In 2020, the status of saiga antelope in the IUCN Red List was planned to be reconsidered again.

The species of saiga antelope is also included in Appendix II of the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (Bonn Convention), an international agreement, the purpose of which is to conserve migratory species, and to which Kazakhstan is a party. Appendix II of the Bonn Convention consists of migratory species that require international agreements for their conservation due to the unfavorable conservation status.

Furthermore, the Memorandum of Understanding Concerning Conservation, Restoration, and Sustainable Use of the Saiga Antelope (Memorandum) was developed and came into force in 2006. The Memorandum contains three objectives, which are to “restore populations to ecologically and biologically appropriate levels throughout the species’ range,” “restore the range and habitats of saiga antelopes to optimal levels,” and “enhance transboundary and international cooperation to conserve and sustainably use saigas.” To achieve such objectives the signatories focus on improving monitoring of the status of individual populations; applying the same recommended monitoring methodology throughout range countries; and assessing the species’ distribution, spatial and temporal variation in breeding pastures and migratory routes. Moreover, range countries work on reduction and control of poaching; improvement of the protected area network; reduction and control of illegal trade of saiga horns in compliance with the international law provisions; and assessment of long-term conservation solutions.

Another international instrument for the preservation of saiga antelopes is the Altyn Dala Conservation Initiative (ADCI), a program created to conserve the northern and semi-desert areas in Central Kazakhstan and critically endangered species inhabiting them, such as saiga antelopes. The program was initiated by the Kazakh Committee of Forestry and Hunting of the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Environment Protection, and it was implemented by the Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity of Kazakhstan, together with the Frankfurt Zoological Society and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. The ADCI reached the biggest achievement and played a big role in the population of saiga antelopes. The population in Betpak-dala has been improved and increased more than fourfold during the period of 2006-2011. However, the population of saiga antelopes is still at high risk. The main challenges to fully achieve established goals are lack of funding and human resources, and economic interests of the range countries have higher priority than the conservation of the species.

Saiga antelope is listed in Appendix II under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Although the saiga antelope is considered an endangered species and included in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, under the CITES this species is still listed in Appendix II, which includes species that are not extinct or threatened with extinction but may become so without a trade control. At the 18th Conference of the Parties in Geneva in August 2019, it was suggested to move species of saiga antelope from Appendix II to Appendix I of the CITES that provides the highest level of protection. However, the committee voted to keep saiga antelope in Appendix II, but with a zero quota from the wild, which means that horns of saiga antelopes cannot be traded internationally.

One of the main challenges to resolve the issue regarding the preservation and protection of saiga antelopes is demand. Saiga horns are still demanded both at the domestic and international levels. Most likely the total prohibition of the trade of saiga horns in the international market will not assist in the preservation of this endangered species. The existence of the black market, which was already mentioned above, is another problem for the conservation of these species. And although a recent decision has been made to establish zero quota on saiga horns in the international market, horns are still being exported due to the reasons listed above in this section.

"Saiga Igor Shpilenok" by USFWS Headquarters is licensed under CC BY 2.0


Saiga antelopes are one of the animals that are important as a symbolic species for Kazakhstan. These interesting animals, however, are becoming extinct not only due to being vulnerable to diseases and other environmental factors but also because humans keep on destroying their habitats and the animals themselves without objective reasons. Of course, trade and export of saiga horns play a vital role in the economy of the country, which is hard to change because of the political structure and working legal system, but killing saiga antelopes for meat consumption should not be continued. Kazakhstan is considered a developing country, which should mean that it is not currently struggling with such kind of crisis that requires the killing of critically endangered species. Moreover, the majority of the population of saiga antelopes is based in Kazakhstan due to the climate and topographical area the country has. Thus, it is crucial for Kazakhstani citizens to take steps to save and protect the species of saiga antelope.

To learn more about the protection of animals in Central Asia, see our blog here.

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