The unique grassland steppe of the Ustyurt Plateau, a temperate desert lying between the Caspian and the Aral seas cover a vast area, about 200,000 square kilometers shared between Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan.
The landscape is a mosaic of eroded hills, shallow basins, and extensive escarpments, with no permanent streams or open fresh-water sources.
With a high degree of endemism -- species that can only be found locally -- the plateau is home to vegetation types well-adapted to a harsh environment, including gypsum- and salt-tolerant plants.
Still found are ungulates like the goitered gazelle (Gazella subgutturosa subgutturosa) and the Ustyurt urial (Ovis vigneri arcal), as well as mammal predators such as the marbled polecat (Vormela peregusna).
The plateau's most famous resident is undoubtedly the saiga antelope (Saiga tatarica tatarica). With its bulbous, tubular nose and bulging eyes, the nomadic antelope is certainly one of the world's strangest-looking mammals. It's also on a list of critically endangered species by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.
A range of human-related impacts are denuding and fragmenting the landscape and its habitats, affecting species' diversity, number, and migration. Meanwhile, social and economic difficulties have caused a sharp decline in funding for conservation efforts in a landscape susceptible to degradation and desertification.
In 1991, Uzbek authorities designated a protected area of 1,000,000 ha in Ustyurt to safeguard saiga lambing grounds. Likewise in Kazakhstan, the Ustyurt Nature Reserve protects 223,000 hectares of the plateau and in Turkmenistan's the 282,000-hectare Kaplankyr Nature Reserve covers the Ustyurt Plateau's southern spur.
The saiga population however has shrunk from more than 1 million in the 1990s to around 40,000 today. In particular the Ustyurt population is vulnerable, with less than 10,000 on the plateau with the population still in sharp decline.
As of today this species of ancient steppe antelope is represented by 5 dissociated groupings of 5-15 thousand of animal units each: Mongolian (in Mongo-lia), Kalmyk (in the Russian Federation), Urals (Kazakhstan), Usturt (Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan) and Turgai-Betpakdala (Kazakhstan), which keep decreasing by 20-40% per year. If this population decline rate is continued, then taking into account the biological peculiarities of this species (a number of natural enemies, climate effect, and susceptibility to diseases) and high demand for the products made of their horns one may talk about the complete loss of this species within next 5-7 years.
This unsustainable increase in poaching for Saiga is occurring because demand for its meat and very sadly for its antlers (used in traditional Chinese medicine as an alternative to the rhinoceros horn). The use of the antlers is totally unfounded and is not based on traditional Chinese medicinal practise at all, but on a combination of lots of greed (particularly that of the smugglers & other middle men) and way way too much money in the hands of too many backward and superstition people living in China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and other parts of the far east who are buying at very high prices antlers & antler preparations which have historically have NEVER ever been used in any traditional Chinese medicinal preparations.
The saiga will face extinction unless very strong conservation measures in Central Asia and the Russian Federation are put in place and efforts by the Chinese/ Taiwan / Kong Kong governments ect. are steeped up considerably ie. making a real effort to stop the sale of the antlers and other by-products of the Saiga and prosecuting whomever is involved (as was done to save the panda in the PRC).