[Marxism] The Disappearing Saiga: Another Post-Soviet Casualty

Suresh borhyaenid at yahoo.com
Wed Apr 28 22:32:50 MDT 2004

We're all dreadfully familiar with the horror stories
surrounding the restoration of capitalism in the
former Soviet Union. From reading the Economist or the
Financial Times, you'd get the impression that the
social and economic decline in Russia only
coincidentally occurred after Yeltsin's performance on
the tank, denouncing the hard-line coup-plotters, or
that perhaps it‘s all due to some character flaw in
the mercurial Slavic soul. Even if the situation has
stabilized over the last few years, with higher oil
prices and the more reliable semi-autocracy of
Vladimir Putin, the country's position in the world,
such as it is, remains largely residual.

Less noticed than alcoholism rates and the sex trade
have been the biological effects of socialism's
demise. One casualty lost in the shuffle, is the
saiga, a species of antelope indigenous to the central
Asian steppes, around southern Russia and Kazakhstan.
At the turn of the 20th century, the saiga's
population was down to several thousand, after being
largely extirpated in a manner strongly reminiscent to
the destruction of the  buffalo. The more apt
comparison, however, may be to the American pronghorn,
which in ecological terms is a good analogue for the
saiga, although they are unrelated. Both are stocky
horned ungulates with thin legs, looking a bit like
barrels on stilts. The most obvious difference is that
the saiga has a prominent and distinctive proboscis.
Both species were decimated during a period of
internal colonization and primary accumulation in the
late 19th century.

But, after the Bolshevik Revolution, saiga hunting was
banned, and with the spread of collective farms and
industrial development, there was less incentive to
turn back to subsistence harvesting of the antelopes.
By the 1950's, it's estimated that from a few thousand
at the time of the storming of the Winter Palace, the
population of the species had risen to more than 2
million. After that point, a regulated hunt was
established and the number declined somewhat. Yet, it
was only after 1991 that the species was once again
faced with the prospect of extinction due to
anthropogenic causes.

It seems that the collapse of the rural economy, the
splintering of constituent republics, and the opening
up of borders allowed for an extensive slaughter of
antelope to occur. The wild west atmosphere of
privatization (or piratization), with oligarchs and
former apparatchiks making out like thieves in the
country at large, was mirrored here in miniature, with
the common people of the steppes finding a ready
source of income in these bleak times, in the saiga. 

Specifically, they have come for their beautiful
spiraled horns, found only on the males. The horns are
ground up and exported to the great East Asian
marketplace of wildlife-based folk remedies and
paraphernalia. I have a feeling a correlation could be
drawn here between the liquidation of the old
U.S.S.R., and the decline and gradual abandonment of
socialist relations in the People's Republic of China.
At any rate, the modernizing coastal cities of the
latter nation are lucrative sites to do business, both
for American toy manufacturers and genuine snake oil

Because the males have been disproportionately
targeted, by the mid 1990's there was a sudden crash
in the antelope’s population, as the lack of
reproductive opportunities combined with natural
mortality. Today, there are probably less than 40,000
left, and that figure may be already out of date. Yet,
regretfully, it cannot be said that the saiga would be
the first species to be extinguished by capitalism.

Here’s an informative study on the subject from a few
years ago, which is available online in PDF format:

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