|Saiga antelope (Saiga tatarica) in profile|
|Reconstructed range (white) and current distribution of the two subspecies Saiga tatarica tatarica (green) and S. t. mongolica (red).|
The saiga antelope (//, Saiga tatarica) is a critically endangered antelope that originally inhabited a vast area of the Eurasian steppe zone from the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains and Caucasus into Dzungaria and Mongolia.
They also lived in Beringian North America during the Pleistocene. Today, the dominant subspecies (S. t. tatarica) is only found in one location in Russia (in The Republic of Kalmykia) and three areas in Kazakhstan (the Ural, Ustiurt and Betpak-Dala populations). A proportion of the Ustiurt population migrates south to Uzbekistan and occasionally Turkmenistan in winter. It is extinct in People's Republic of China and southwestern Mongolia. It was hunted extensively in Romania and Moldova until it became extinct in those regions in the end of the 18th century. The Mongolian subspecies (S. t. mongolica) is found only in western Mongolia. Some sources consider the Mongolian subspecies to be a distinct species, the Mongolian saiga (Saiga borealis).
The saiga typically stands 0.6–0.8 m (2 ft 0 in–2 ft 7 in) at the shoulder and weighs between 36 and 63 kg (79 and 139 lb). The horned males are larger than the hornless females. Their lifespans range from 6 to 10 years. The saiga is recognizable by an extremely unusual, over-sized, flexible nose structure, the proboscis. During summer migrations the saigas' nose helps filter out dust kicked up by the herd and cools the animal's blood. In the winter it heats up the frigid air before it is taken to the lungs.
Habitat and behavior
Saigas form very large herds that graze in semideserts, steppes, grasslands and possibly open woodlands eating several species of plants, including some that are poisonous to other animals. They can cover long distances and swim across rivers, but they avoid steep or rugged areas. The mating season starts in November, when stags fight for the possession of females. The winner leads a herd of five to 50 females. In springtime, mothers come together in mass to give birth. Two thirds of births will be twins, the remain third of births will be of a single foal.
During the last glacial period, the saiga ranged from the British Isles through Central Asia and the Bering Strait into Alaska and Canada's Yukon and Northwest Territories. By the classical age they were apparently considered a characteristic animal of Scythia, judging from the historian Strabo's description of an animal called the "Kolos" that was "between the deer and ram in size" and was (understandably but wrongly) believed to drink through its nose. At the beginning of the 18th century, it was still distributed from the shores of the Black Sea, the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains, and the northern edge of the Caucasus into Dzungaria and Mongolia.
After a rapid decline they were nearly completely exterminated in the 1920s, but they were able to recover. By 1950, two million of them were found in the steppes of the USSR. Their population fell drastically following the collapse of the USSR due to uncontrolled hunting and demand for horns in Chinese medicine. At one point, some conservation groups, such as the World Wildlife Fund, encouraged the hunting of this species, as its horn was presented as an alternative to that of a rhinoceros.
Today, the populations have again shrunk enormously — as much as 95% in 15 years. The saiga is classified as critically endangered by the IUCN. An estimated total number of 50,000 saigas survive today in Kalmykia, three areas of Kazakhstan and in two isolated areas of Mongolia. Another small population in the Pre-Caspian region of Russia remains under extreme threat.
Cherny Zemli Nature Reserve was created in Russia's Kalmykia Republic in the 1990s to protect the local saiga population. Kalmykia's president Kirsan Ilyumzhinov announced 2010 as the Year of Saiga in Kalmykia. In Kazakhstan, the number of saiga was found to be increasing, from around 21,000 at the beginning of this millennium to around 81,000 in January 2010. However, in May 2010, an estimated 12,000 of the 26,000 Saiga population in the Ural region of Kazakhstan have been found dead. Although the deaths are currently being ascribed to pasteurellosis, an infectious disease that strikes the lungs and intestines, the underlying trigger remains to be identified. In May 2015, what may be the same disease broke out in three northern regions of the country. As of 28 May 2015, more than 120,000 saiga antelope have been confirmed dead in the Betpak-Dala population in central Kazakhstan, representing more than a third of the global population.
Kazakhstan in November 2010 reaffirmed a ban on hunting saiga antelopes, and extended this ban until 2021, as the Central Asian nation seeks to save the endangered species.
The horn of the saiga antelope is used in traditional Chinese medicine, and can sell for as much as $150. Demand for the horns has wiped out the population in China, where the saiga antelope is a Class I protected species, and drives poaching and smuggling.
Under the auspices of the Convention on Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS), also known as the Bonn Convention, the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) Concerning Conservation, Restoration and Sustainable Use of the Saiga Antelope was concluded and came into effect 24 September 2006. The saiga's decline being one of the fastest population collapses of large mammals recently observed, the MoU aims to reduce current exploitation levels and restore the population status of these nomads of the Central Asian steppes.
In June 2014, Chinese customs at the Kazakh border uncovered 66 cases containing 2,351 saiga antelope horns, estimated to be worth over Y70.5 million (US$11 million). At that price, each horn would cost over US$4,600.
Mass mortalities 1980 to 2014
For ungulates mass mortalities are not uncommon. In the eighties, there were several saiga die offs. Between 2010 and 2014, there was a die off every year. It is thought that the deaths could be linked to calving aggregation.
In May 2015, uncommonly large numbers of saiga began to die from a mysterious epizootic illness suspected to be pasteurellosis. Herd fatality is 100% once infected, with an estimated 40% of the species' total population already dead. More than 120,000 carcasses had been found as of late May, while the estimated total population was only 250,000.
Biologist Murat Nurushev suggested that the cause might be acute ruminal tympany, whose symptoms (bloating, mouth foaming and diarrhea) had been observed in dead saiga antelopes. According to Nurushev, this disease occurred as a result of foraging on a large amount of easily fermenting plants (alfalfa, clover, sainfoins and mixed wet green grass). In May 2015, the United Nations agency which is involved in saiga conservation efforts issued a statement that the mass die-off had ended. As of June 2015, no definitive cause for the epizootic has been found.
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- See Wild Russia
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- (Chinese) 新疆霍尔果斯海关破获一起羚羊角走私案 天山网 2014-06-23
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- Saiga mystery disease; May 29, 2015
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Saiga Antelope.|
- CMS Saiga Memorandum of Understanding
- Saiga antelope media at ARKive
- Ultimate Ungulate
- WWF species profile: Saiga antelope