The saiga is a small species of antelope, about the size of a goat (63-80cm shoulder height and 23-40kg in weight), which has a stooping body, a large head, a distinctive pendulant proboscid nose, and an unusual ‘up and down’ style of running. It’s coat is a light buff color, which becomes thicker and white in the winter. Males have pale yellowish horns, 28-38cm in length.
Dating back at least as far as the last ice age, saiga antelopes once ranged across almost the whole of Asia and Europe. Reports from the 19th Century describe huge herds covering the whole steppe. For much of the 20th Century, good populations were found in Kazakhstan, Russia, Uzbekistan, Mongolia, and sometimes Turkmenistan. The species was hunted, largely for its horns, but this was well managed. The high reproductive potential of the species (females reach sexual maturity at less than a year and generally give birth to twins) meant that populations could tolerate a certain level of hunting.
Unfortunately for the saiga, the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s had a disastrous impact on the rural economies of all the countries in which it is found. Widespread unemployment and poverty lead to increased hunting for food, and for trade. The opening of borders for trade with China only exacerbated this. China has a huge appetite for saiga horn, for traditional medicine.
In the last 15 years, global populations of saiga antelope have fallen by 95%
This antelope may be found in herds of up to 1000 individuals, and prefers desert-steppe areas with shrubs and other herbaceous vegetation. It feeds on various grasses, onions, shrubs and other desert plants.
The population in Mongolia is of the subspecies Saiga tatarica mongolicus, and numbers about 750 individuals (www.iucnredlist.org). They are found mostly within protected areas in remote south-western Mongolia – Govi Altai and Hovd Aimags (provinces), and until 1960 were also found in China. They seasonally migrate large distances throughout the year, in search of good pasture and sources of water. In the fall, herds move south to avoid snow, and mate in December. Dominant males mate with a defend groups of up to 30 females. The antelope move north once again in April. Young are born in early June after a gestation of about 150 days.
Hair and small piles of spherical black droppings may be found in pasture.
The Saiga Antelope was added to the IUCN’s Red List as ‘Critically Endangered’ in 2001. Although protective legislation has existed in many of these countries for several years, efforts are currently underway to improve law enforcement, and support rural economies. Protected Area networks are being bolstered, and several international conservation organizations are committed to supporting this species. Since 2006, the Saiga Conservation Alliance has been working with the Convention on Migratory Species.
As of 2010, the global population is thought to be around 50,000 individuals, mostly in Kazakhastan. The Mongolian population is found in two remote areas of western Mongolia, mostly within the Sharga Nature Reserve, and Mankhan Nature Reserve (both designated in 1993).
Conservation organizations are reporting positive impacts from their work in some areas, however it is clear that more needs to be done, across the species’ whole range.
The main threat to the survival of the Saiga Antelope is hunting. The impact of this threat far exceeds that of natural predators such as wolves and foxes, fire, destruction of habitat, blocking of migration routes, harsh winters, or changing patterns of agriculture. As explained above, the hunting of saiga rapidly accelerated during the 1990s, partly due to the lucrative trade in saiga horn for Chinese medicine. Today it can fetch up to $100 per kilogram (www.saiga-conservation.com).
In addition to the obvious depletion in numbers, the hunting of male saiga for their horns leads to highly skewed population structures. A situation rapidly occurred where there simply were not enough males to mate with all the females. This resulted in ‘reproductive collapse’, and decimation of populations.