WWF-Russia reviews the results of innovative saiga census
In November 2019, a research group made over a few dozens of flights with two drones equipped with cameras, laser pointers, and thermal imagers. The thermal imagers allowed the researchers to work at night when the air temperature is low. The study indicates that there are about 6,350 saigas in the steppes of the northwestern Precaspian region today.
WWF-Russia has been testing unmanned plane-type aerial vehicles (UAV) since 2018. Key advantages of the UAV use include the absence of harmful impact on the ecosystem and the availability of obtained photos and videos for further analysis in the future.
Researchers need reliable data on the state of rare species populations to perform effective preservation work and assess its results. However, saiga's biological peculiarities make it difficult to count its population size, let alone assess its age and sex structure. These steppe antelopes are extremely timid and are almost always on the move. Over the recent decades, the saiga population in the northwestern Precaspian region (Yashkulskiy and Chernozemelskiy districts of the Republic of Kalmykia and Limaskiy district of the Astrakhan Region) has been counted using various methods, but they were very inaccurate, and their data were very different. Moreover, some of the methods could harm the ecosystem. For example, researchers plowed the steppes in parallel courses with cars to cover the whole territory and disturbed animals with the noise of planes flying low when counting populations from air.
The new UVA counting method allows obtaining as precise information as possible without harming the environment.
After we reviewed the results of the November flights, we got an opportunity to compare the assessments performed in different periods—after saiga calves were born (June) and in the mating season (November).
"Each period that we've chosen has its advantages and disadvantages. Counting saigas in June allows us to reduce significantly (threefold or fourfold) the flight time, which is very important, especially in terms of the economy since each flight kilometer costs a lot of money. From experience, we also know that saigas are very sensitive to noise during the mating season, so we have to keep the drones higher than in the summer, which makes sex and age identification difficult. But this is exactly the information that is vital now. We know that the main factor that has led to the catastrophic decline in saiga population is the selective poaching of male animals. That is why it is so important to know how many male saigas the population has. On the other hand, we can make better use of the thermal shooting in the fall and spring," says Valeriy Shmunk, Head of the WWF-Russia Russian Caucasus Regional Office.
Data of the last UAV population counting showed that the steppes of the northwestern Precaspian region are home to at least 6,350 saigas.
The WWF will prepare the saiga counting and monitoring project within the next few months. Upon discussion with specialists, the project will be directed to the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment of Russia for approval.