Attempts to establish breeding populations of saiga in zoos have been largely unsuccessful. However, Ukraine’s Askania-Nova Biosphere Reserve, where animals from around the world are kept in semi-wild conditions on the virgin steppe, has managed to breed a small population of saiga that now numbers around 700 animals. The saiga breeding program in Askania-Nova started in the 1970s when 70 wild animals were brought to the reserve.
In 2018, reports appeared in Ukrainian press that a Chinese company, quoted as Shizhen Tan Pharmaceutical Company (in the original Russian - Шичжень тан фармасьютикал компани) launched a venture with Askania-Nova to breed saiga commercially for their horn.
Reports claimed that the Chinese side leased almost 100 hectares of land in Kherson Region near the village of Kamysh. The lease was for 7 years and the Chinese invested over 40,000 US dollars in the infrastructure. The saiga stock for the breeding facility was bought from Askania-Nova.
Ukrainian news portal Noviy Den’ reported that in 2018 the same Chinese company also bought saiga skins and skulls of saiga from Askania-Nova. The body parts reportedly came from animals that had died of natural causes on the reserve. The report mentioned 30 skulls sold and 130 more being prepared to be sent to China. “Several dozens” of skins were also sold. The prices were quoted as 400 US dollars per skull (it was not mentioned if the skulls had horns or not), and 200 dollars for each skin. CITES trade database shows that in 2018, 30 skins and 220 skulls were exported from Ukraine to China.
Noviy Den’ quoted the director of Aslkania-Nova, Viktor Gavrilenko, as to how the reserve’s saiga are turned into a source of revenue: “Our main herd is kept in semi-wild conditions and does not let people anywhere near them. We prepared the animals for captivity … by raising them from birth. This is how they became accustomed to people and at times do not object to being approached and stroked. These are the antelopes that we rehoused into the new breeding facility.”
In August 2020, Kherson regional news portal reported that although 25 saiga were originally “rehoused” to the “breeding facility” in 2019, the number of saiga there has increased to 200. The report claims that in order to harvest the horn, the antelopes will not be slaughtered, but “the horns will sawn off from males under the general anaesthetic, and (the horns) regrow in two years.”
Wild male saiga with horns. (Credit: Andrey Gilijov / Wikimedia Commons)
It is biologically inconceivable that in one year 175 saiga could be born in captivity from an original stock of just 20 animals. If the claims of 200 animals in the breeding facility are correct, then almost a third of Askania-Nova’s total saiga population may now be marked for horn harvesting.
The 2019 CITES zero-quota on wild saiga means that only captive bred animals can be legally traded. However, CITES records showed export of almost 1,500 saiga horns – equivalent to 750 male saiga (only males of the species have horns), in a single shipment, from Ukraine to China in 2019.
For this to have been legal, the horns shipped out of Ukraine would need to have come from dead captive-bred animals kept in storage in a breeding facility. Alternatively, the legal horn could have come from Ukraine’s live captive-bred saiga - “sawn off under general anaesthetic”.
However, the number of horns in the shipment - almost 1,500, is equivalent to more than double the entire captive-bred population of saiga, males and females included, of Askania-Nova. The numbers simply do not add up.
There are no wild saiga in Ukraine - the species went extinct there in the 19th century.
The Species Victim Impact Statements (SVIS) Initiative have provided information to the Hong Kong government on the extent of saiga horn smuggling into Mainland China and the saiga poaching crisis in Kazakhstan that led to murders of wildlife rangers by poachers. Timely access to robust biological data is essential to government departments seeking to effectively counter illegal wildlife 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.