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Kazakhstan’s wildlife rangers are paying with their lives for Asian demand for saiga horn

Saiga antelope is a survivor from the era of mammoths and cave lions. Enormous herds once migrated across the Eurasian grasslands that span from Hungary to China, but in the early 20th century this small antelope with a distinctive trunk was on the verge of extinction, found only in the remote parts of the Soviet Union - mainly in Kazakhstan, and Mongolia.

Freshly poached saiga horn on sale on Russian-language social media network VKontakte in Kazakhstan.


Put under strict protection in the USSR, saiga bounced back, and over a million antelopes were living on the steppes of Kazakhstan in the 1980s.


After the break-up of the Soviet Union the saiga population in the now-independent Kazakhstan crashed by over 90%, as poaching for meat spiralled out of control and then an epidemic wiped out large numbers of animals. Kazakh saiga numbers have since recovered, but poaching is now threatening the species once again, driven by the demand of saiga horn for traditional Chinese medicine.

Saiga herd in Western Kazakhstan. Image: Yakov Fedorov / Wikimedia Commons.


Saiga horn medicine is widely and openly available in Asia, including Hong Kong SAR, Malaysia and especially Singapore, where the trade is so prevalent that research has been recently done on the demand and consumption of saiga horn medicine amongst the population.


Saiga is listed in CITES Appendix II and trade in the species is subject to strict regulations. Moreover, in 2019 CITES imposed zero-export quotas on trade in wild saiga. Saiga do not breed well in captivity and there is almost no captive-bred stock. Zero-export quota was supposed to effectively stop the trade in wild saiga.


However, according to CITES trade database, in 2019 Hong Kong legally imported 3,135 horns from Singapore. The database identifies the origin of the horn as Kazakhstan. In 2020, Hong Kong imported another 1,000 horns, equivalent to dead 500 saiga, again from Singapore. Given the lack of commercially viable breeding, laundering of wild saiga is likely to be behind such exports.


In Kazakhstan, where the vast majority of wild saiga are found, the species is protected and hunting it is a criminal offence. Kazakh wildlife rangers seeking to protect the animals have paid with their lives for Asia’s appetite for saiga horn.


“His head was like a smashed-up melon”

On January 13th, 2019, in Karaganda Region of Kazakhstan, hunting inspectors Erlan Nurgaliyev and Petr Nitsyk confronted a gang of saiga poachers who responded with extreme violence. Two days later, Nurgaliyev died in hospital of head injuries.


Nitsyk, who suffered a fractured skull in the assault, survived and assisted the police with the investigation.


Seven suspects were apprehended, and in February 2020, three of the seven defendants were found guilty of the murder of Nurgaliyev, attempted murder of Nitsyk, and of illegal hunting of saiga. The three were given life sentences. The remaining four defendants were found guilty of illegal poaching of saiga and given 6-year sentences.


Erlan Nurgaliyev’s brother - Nurlan Nurgaliyev, in an interview with Kazakhstan’s Radio Azattyk, said that his brother’s head looked like a “smashed-up melon.” One of the defendants, who broke down in court, recalled that he personally delivered blows to Nurgaliyev both with his fists and the barrel of his shotgun. He claimed, however, that his actions were the consequences of his fear for his own and his friend’s lives. (The rangers, who by law cannot use their firearms in self-defence, were outnumbered two to seven).


Two of those convicted of Nurgaliyev’s murder never admitted their guilt. “If we wanted to kill them, we would have used the knives that we had,” said one of the convicted.


Had Petr Nytsik not survived the assault, the seven poachers would most likely never have been apprehended, say the relatives of the murdered Nurgaliyev.


Another ranger was murdered just a few months later.


On July 23rd, 2019, rangers Kanysh Nyrtazinov and Samat Ospanov were pursuing a 4x4 vehicle driven by saiga poachers who opened fire. Nyrtazinov died from gunshot wounds before he was brought to hospital, Ospanov survived, but projectiles are still embedded in his shoulder. The suspected poachers, a father and son, were arrested. It is unclear if they were prosecuted.


Following the murders, Okhotzooprom, the Kazakh state agency that regulates hunting, called for their rangers to be given the same status as law enforcement officers, so that the rangers could have the right to use their firearms in self-defence.


As a sign of how intensive saiga poaching has become in Kazakhstan, Erlan Abdrakhmanov, the head of regional bureau of Okhotzooprom, told Radio Azattyk that there was now a need for Kazakhstan to adopt some of the methods used in anti-poaching in Africa.


Two types of poachers

“Poaching (in Kazakhstan) cannot be stopped because it is a system, corruption, an established business. People, including some who work in law enforcement, earn money from it,” Kazakhstani environmentalist Saken Dildakhmet told Kazakh media outlet Kursiv.


Colonel Erlan Arystanov, the former head of criminal investigations in West Kazakhstan Region, explained to Kursiv that there are two types of poachers. The first type are villagers with few sources of income. Many work only seasonally, as herders, but almost everyone has a firearm. They are opportunistic poachers, who may shoot one saiga, or cut horns off a carcass they find.


The second type are professional poachers who are part of criminal organisations. These are well-armed and equipped with snowmobiles, all-terrain vehicles, and night-vision equipment.


A villager interviewed by Kyrsiv said: “Saiga horns had no value before. Now people started to make medicine out of them, and the demand rose. If we had real work, nobody would touch the saiga. Most of our men travel for seasonal work as herders and labourers on farms. Herders make very little (per month) – 50-60,000 tenge (USD 115 – 140). The police do not touch the real poachers, even though everyone knows who they are. As to why, I don’t think there is any need to explain.”


Crackdown

Col Arystanov, however, claims that a crackdown on saiga traffickers and poachers is under way in Kazakhstan, and that the prices have crashed as a result. According to Arystanov, in 2017-2019 a poacher could get 120-140,000 tenge (USD 280 – 320) for one kilo, now the buyers do not offer more than 15,000 (USD 35).


Kazakh media reported that in 2019, 18 members of organised crime syndicates, all Kazakh citizens, were arrested and 1,118 kilos of horn confiscated - equivalent to more than 3,000 dead saiga.


Before the end of 2020, 641 saiga carcasses and 3,438 horns had been confiscated, 106 cases investigated, and 29 prosecuted according to Kursiv, quoting Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Ecology.


The largest seizure to date was in June 2021. Kazakhstan Today reported that a poaching and smuggling syndicate who were bringing saiga horn into China was smashed in the Almaty Region in the South of Kazakhstan. 3,144 horns weighing over 700kg were seized. In images released to the media, agents armed with assault rifles posed with apprehended traffickers - handcuffed men lying face down on concrete floor next to with piles of saiga horn.


Weeks later, the follow up investigation yielded 1,178 more horns, seized in the West of Kazakhstan, in the city of Uralsk. The contraband was hidden in a large MAZ truck modified for this purpose.


“Will buy horns”

Adverts posted by buyers and sellers of saiga horn are numerous on Russian-language online shopping platforms and social media, such as VKontakte, the Russian analogue of Facebook. These adverts are hosted in the former Soviet republics - Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Ukraine and Belarus, where Russian language is widely used.


An advert by a Kazakhstani buyer on Vkontakte: "We buy saiga horn for good price, any region is possible, (as for) quantity and condition - send photos to WhatsApp or call."


Kazakhstan has tried to crack down on on-line trade, forcing trading platforms to remove adverts for selling and buying of saiga horn. However, a Google search shows a large number of ads on VKontakte. The photos of horns on sale, uploaded by sellers, are recent, and on some of the horn blood and tissue are visible at the base.


On Ukrainian on-line platforms saiga horn is sold and bought openly, and the adverts are posted primarily by buyers rather than sellers. Ukrainian buyers are so open about their trade that openly publish their price lists. Prices offered for a pair of horns vary from 20 to 400 US dollars, depending on the size and condition.

Adverts by saiga horn buyers on Ukrainian on-line trading platform.


Ukraine has no wild saiga, but the country shares a porous border with Russia, that has a population of about 5,000 antelopes. Russia also shares an even longer and more open border with Kazakhstan, the saiga poaching hotbed. Belarus, where saiga horn adverts are also hosted, is in a customs union with Russia and the border is essentially open and unregulated.


In the next two articles on saiga horn trade, the SVIS Initiative will look at saiga horn smuggling into Mainland China and on the role of Ukraine in the trade.


Illegal wildlife trade has now become a grave threat to species and ecosystems. Species Victim Impact Statement (SVIS) Initiative have drafted Species Victim Impact Statements for over a hundred most trafficked species of animals and plants. Species Victim Impact Statements help the judges and the prosecutors understand the harm done when species are taken from the wild. This harm is not limited to the suffering of individual animals, but also includes harm to the ecosystems, as well as to the resources and services that these ecosystems provide to people.

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