March 31, 2008

Rare Mongolian Antelope in Danger of Extinction

As traffic continues to build in parts of western Mongolia, conservationists grow increasingly weary of the potential consequences it may have for the saiga, a rare species of antelope.

"As we get more and more traffic through the corridor, it would potentially discourage the saiga from using it," Kim Murray Berger, an ecologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society, said.

Berger said that increased traffic could lead to the reproductive isolation of the species, reducing its genetic diversity.

The saiga is recognizable by its unusually large trunk-like nose, which is known to warm its air during the winter while filtering dust in the summer. The breed is under the threat of poaching because male saigas carry horns that are valuable in Chinese traditional medicine.

The population of saigas in the Soviet Union, where they face added danger from herders for good grazing area, has dropped to around 5,000.

The World Wide Fund for Nature has implemented anti-poaching methods, but has been unable to cover the entire saiga range in Mongolia.

In 2006, Berger, along with colleagues and researchers from the Mongolian Academy of Sciences rigged GPS collars on adult female saigas in the area to study its frequent travel routes. They found that they routinely passed along a 3-mile-wide corridor through a narrow valley.

The saiga population has drastically dropped from approximately 1 million in the 1980s to almost 50,000 in its range, which includes Mongolia, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and the Russian Republic of Kalmykia.

The remaining population faces added threats of disease outbreaks or icy winter conditions that could potentially drive the endemic subspecies to extinction.

Berger said she hoped the study would spark the interest of authorities to consider the saiga during future planning of developments in the area.


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