Joel Berger  /  Wildlife Conservation Society via AP
A saiga calf with a radio transmitter is released in Mongolia's Sharga Nature Reserve.
updated 4/1/2008 11:00:24 AM ET 2008-04-01T15:00:24

A rare antelope species already under threat from poaching in Mongolia is facing a new danger — worsening traffic.

As affluent residents acquire motorbikes and cars in parts of western Mongolia, they are clogging roads that run along a key migration route for the saiga which, if not addressed, could reduce their already low numbers, said Kim Murray Berger, an ecologist with the N.Y.-based Wildlife Conservation Society.

"As we get more and more traffic through the corridor, it would potentially discourage the saiga from using it," she said, adding that could lead to the reproductive isolation of the species, reducing its genetic diversity.

The saiga — an odd animal which has a deer's body, a camel's head and a bulbous nose — has seen its numbers drop from 1 million in the 1980s to as low as 50,000 in its range, which includes Mongolia, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and the Russian Republic of Kalmykia.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the saiga in Mongolia have come under threat from poachers who were encouraged to substitute rhino horns with those of the saiga for medicinal purposes, said Berger. The animals, which number around 5,000 in the country, have also faced competition from herders for good grazing areas and seen their numbers decimated by as much as 70 percent since the 1980s by droughts.

Berger set out in 2005 with her WCS colleagues and researchers from the Mongolian Academy of Sciences to better understand the movements of the saiga. Using radio collars equipped with global positioning system on adult females, the researchers were able to determine that the animals frequently traveled along a 3-mile-wide corridor through a narrow valley. The route is also the location for a dirt road that serves as the only link villagers in the valley have with the outside world.

Berger said she hoped the study, which has been accepted for publication by the peer-reviewed publication The Open Conservation Biology Journal, would spur authorities to consider incorporating the saiga into any development plans for the area.

L. Undes, the deputy chairman of the Sustainable Development and Strategic Planning department in Mongolia's Ministry of Natural Environment, said authorities planned to expand a nature reserve for saiga, limit herders use of the corridor and step up efforts to ban hunting of the saiga.

Berger previously helped identify a key migration route for the antelope-like pronghorn in and out of Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming.

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