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Profile: Saiga

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Profile: Saiga

Endangered Saiga Antelope

U.S. Geological Survey / Wikimedia

The saiga (Saiga tatarica) is an unusual looking antelope of the Eurasian steppe that has been in existence since the Pleistocene era. Vast herds, numbering in the tens of thousands, once roamed the semi-desert landscapes from the British Isles eastward into Canada's Yukon Territory, but saigas are now one of the world's fastest declining mammal species. Their numbers have declined from millions of animals in the 1990s to less than 50,000 today, and it is now extinct in parts of its historic range located in China and southwestern Mongolia.

Physical Characteristics:

  • Humped, bulbous nose that is flexible and inflatable to aid breathing during dusty summers and cold winters
  • Large brown eyes
  • Thin, sandy brown summer coat
  • Thick, white winter coat
  • Long, thin legs
  • Males are generally bigger than females
  • Males grow horns up to 10 inches in length

Size:

  • Shoulder height: 2 to 2.6 feet
  • Weight: 46 to 112 pounds

Habitat:

Saigas inhabit arid steppes and semi-desert areas that are characterized by flat, open areas of low-growing vegetation. They typically avoid rocky terrain and dense vegetation where they would be more vulnerable to predators such as the Eurasian wolf.

Diet:

Saigas eat grasses, steppe lichens, herbs and shrubs. They can travel over 20 miles per day, grazing on vegetation. They migrate northward in summer to rich steppe grazing areas, and they return to the southern desert region in the winter where milder weather conditions make it possible to find food.

Reproduction:

  • Mating takes place between December and January.
  • Males fight aggressively to defend their harems of 5-15 females.
  • Winning males lead herds of 5-50 females.
  • Gestation period is 140-150 days.
  • Mothers give birth to 1 or 2 young (called foals) during the spring migration in April and May.
  • Newborns begin grazing at 4 to 8 days, but they are not fully weaned until 4 months.

Lifespan:

  • Average 3.5 to 5 years
  • Maximum 10 to 12 years

Geographic Range:

Southeast Europe and Central Asia, including Kalmykia, three areas of Kazakhstan, and in two isolated areas of Mongolia

Conservation Status:

Critically Endangered (IUCN 2003)

Estimated Population:

50,000 individuals

Causes of Population Decline:

  • Poaching for meat and export of horns used in traditional Asian medicine
  • Habitat loss due to expanding agriculture use and the construction of roads and pipelines
  • Competition for food and habitat with domestic livestock
  • Lack of male mates for females (reproductive failure) due to predominant hunting of male saigas
  • Harsh winters and summer droughts

Conservation Efforts:

  • Kazakhstan government funds anti-poaching patrols and aerial surveys, and it has passed legislation strengthening rangers' powers of arrest.
  • Russian government has issued a decree for emergency measures for saiga conservation in Kalmykia and is funding population surveys.
  • The Saiga Conservation Alliance, a network of researchers and conservationists, was formed in 1991 to study and protect the saiga.
  • Rewilding Europe , an organization working to preserve Europe's native wildlife, announced plans in 2011 to reintroduce saiga to Europe.
  • Through the Wildlife Without Borders-Russia Program, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has provided over $127,000 in grants and technical assistance for saiga conservation since 2000. Grants focus on issues such as illegal trade, poaching, and sustainable livelihoods for local communities.
  • Participatory Monitoring of Saiga Population Ecology Project trains young scientists for a sustainable monitoring program in Russia.
  • A successful captive breeding herd has been established at the Centre for the Study and Conservation of Wild Animals in Kalmykia.
  • Chinese authorities have introduced tougher enforcement on illegal imports of saiga horns.

How You Can Help:

Support saiga conservation organizations by giving financial donations, creating business partnerships, and volunteering.

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