Abstract Effective conservation of exploited species requires an understanding of the motivations experienced by resource users. When use is illegal, it can be particularly difficult to distinguish users from non-users. The attitudes of local people are critical to conservation success, because they interact with social circumstances to determine behaviour. In this study we explore the factors influencing inferred poaching behaviour of the Critically Endangered saiga antelope ( Saiga tatarica) in six communities in three countries of the former Soviet Union. We show that local people have a good understanding of the species’ status and positive attitudes towards its conservation, regardless of their household’s inferred poaching status. Poaching is a low prestige occupation, and our analyses suggest that it is carried out by poor, unemployed households who have the means to hunt. These results are consistent for all villages. However we find important regional differences in hunting behaviour, linked to saiga population density and migration patterns, which have implications for the likely effectiveness of different conservation strategies. Community-based interventions are more likely to be appropriate in Russia, where saigas are present year-round and hunting is more subsistence based, than in the strongly seasonal Kazakhstan populations where economies of scale require organised poaching by fewer households. This case study illustrates the complex linkages between attitudes, social circumstances and behaviour in resource user behaviour, and highlights both the consistencies and differences in drivers of poaching between locations at a range of spatial scales.