YOU SHALL NOT PASS: A research study on the endangered Saiga tatarica

*property of the Wild Mammal Blog.

Yep, we all love to talk about what we as humans are doing to the coexisting species that live with us and how we have a negative influence on them when it comes to the whole talk about extinction and preserving biodiversity. We put a lot of emphasis on the interaction between population subunits and how we affect their harmony with each other and nature in general. However, what we need to really focus on as well, in order for a long-term maintenance of biodiversity, is the structure and the geography that the meta-population resides in. In other words, there are geographical structures that spatially separate different groups of animals together, animals that are of the same species. These animals have adapted to the environment in such a way that they use it as a mode of interaction with other members of the same species living in different locations. And if there is ever a case where their living conditions are altered or threatened in any way, they would be in for some trouble; they could potentially go extinct. Experts from the University of Montana and other institutions, such as Joel Berger, conducted a simple yet insightful research and observation on the interaction amongst the Saiga tatarica, or simply saigas, and what could possibility having led to them being categorized as an endangered species.

This research gives us an idea where our focus in regards to biodiversity conservation should be on. For instance, the results of this research may lead researchers and biological conservationists to adjusting locations for biological “hotspots” due to the change in conservation priorities. Also new findings that researchers uncover from this research could potentially encourage other researchers, studying in the same field or any other relevant fields, to further the same research and come up across more discoveries which would improve our approach on biodiversity conservation and on preventing extinction of species. This could be the first step to bring stability to the saiga populations and to other species that live a similar life pattern as them.

Joel Berger from University of Manitoba and other colleagues from the institution went out there in Mongolia with their global positioning system (the GPS) and radio-collars on an adult female saiga, they have been able to identify route it took to travel in between subunits of the saiga populations. It happened to be a narrow corridor that connects two subpopulations of the Altai Mountains in the West. And get this – the corridor is no longer than 5 kilometers in length from the wall of one side of the path to the other, and this essentially represents the only route between the major subpopulations located in the Shargyn-Govi and the Huysiyn-Govi. It is analogous to the path students take to go to class and if they don’t take that path (assuming there’s only one way to class), they are unable to receive an education (because, well, they haven’t committed to any other schools). The saigas rely heavily on this route as it brings the entire meta-population together. And as we have been taught in our conservation biology class, smaller populations are more likely to potentially run into a population loss crisis. This scenario would be the case have they not have access to each other through this route. Their research shows that in the past two decades, the population of saiga decreased by over 95% from just over a million to merely less than 50,000. Aside from the fact that their paths have been disturbed by human intervention, such as vehicle usage and sheep herding in this area, we have also been taking these guys down for their horns. This finding emphasizes the importance of preserving bottlenecks like this.

Now that we’ve discovered the path the saigas species take is a significantly narrow corridor of width of less than 5 kilometers – this is considered a “bottleneck”. A bottleneck, if dealt with little care could lead to an extreme population crisis in a relatively small time frame. Despite the corridor seeming so small and insignificant, it is essentially the equivalent to us taking ships, planes, and other modes of transportation to go overseas and interact with different officials from different countries in order for the betterment of our world (or for the survival of the human species). The journal mentions that the habitat has been challenged by local people who have been using this as their travel path using their trucks, motorcycles, cars and other vehicles as well as a livestock unit. The realization and the conclusion people draw from this research would make them, especially those taking advantage of this path; reevaluate their actions and what they could be doing to this particular species. And even on a governmental and organizational basis, others would start taking action to deal with the diminishing number of saigas.

As mentioned above, one of the bigger challenges is setting people whose focus needs adjustment straight in regards to conserving the saiga; so it seems that people have the wrong knowledge and logic for handling this issue. People in Mongolia themselves have been hampered by the lack of knowledge about the movements and locations of habitats of these saigas – their conservation efforts have been, let’s just say, not for the best. People have been focusing on the connectivity between the subunits of the population; but the research study strongly emphasizes that the geographical structure, more specifically the “bottleneck”, is what needs to be factored in the most in determining the best way to tackle this problem of potential species loss. For this knowledge of bottleneck to be more prevalent, locals and governmental agencies would need to take action and implement more researches on the corridor path for the idea of protecting geography structures to be more convincing.

As it has been an ongoing theme throughout the entire article, a constant maintenance of geographical bottlenecks is crucial to animals such as the saigas considering how heavily these guys rely on them for survival. And unless the government starts intervening to help the locals out in conserving such geographical structures, it seems that the saigas’ numbers would keep dropping until it reaches the point of extinction – and by then it would be too late for us to take any action to revert it.

by David Jae

Work Citation

Berger, Joel. 2008. Migration Bottlenecks, Climate, and the Conservation of Pleistocene Relicts in Central Asia. The Open Conservation Biology Journal. 2:9-10.

This entry was posted in Conservation Biology Posts, Conservation Blogs 2012-2013. Bookmark the permalink.

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