Saiga antelope have an extremely distinctive appearance with an enlarged nose that hangs down over the mouth (5). Despite their common name these ungulates are thought to be intermediates between antelope and sheep (6). The coat is sparse and cinnamon-buff in the summer but becomes white and around 70 percent thicker in winter (6). The underbelly is light in colour throughout the year, and there is a small mane on the underside of the neck (6). Mature males have almost vertical horns; these are semi translucent and are ringed in the bottom sections (6).
Saiga are nomadic animals and undertake seasonal migrations from summer pastures in steppe grassland to winter pastures in desert areas (8). Large groups of saiga migrate southwards to the winter grounds, covering up to 72 miles in a day (6). The rut begins in late November and males gather groups of around 30 females in ‘harems’, which they defend aggressively (5). During the rut, males’ noses swell up and the hair tufts below the eyes are covered in a sticky secretion (2). Males do not feed much during the rutting season, when they take part in violent fights that often end in death. The male mortality rate can reach 90 percent during this time, due to exhaustion (5). Surviving males begin to migrate north at the end of April (6). Females give birth at this time, usually to two young, which are initially concealed in vegetation; all the females within the herd will give birth within a week of each other (6). Once the calves are a few days old, the whole herd breaks into smaller herds which head northwards to the summer feeding grounds (9). Once there, smaller groups break off, reforming again for the journey south the following autumn (6).
Saiga graze on a number of different grasses, herbs and shrubs (1). The unusual swollen nose is thought to filter out airborne dust during the dry summer migrations and to enable cold winter air to be warmed before it reaches the lungs (6).
Currently, there are three populations of the subspeciesS. t. tatarica in Kazakhstan - the Ural, Ust’-Urt and Betpakdala, and one population in the Pre-Caspian region (a European population). Some herds from one of the populations within Kazakhstan migrate to Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan during the winter. Each of these populations is distinct and there is little intermingling of the populations. Until the early 1960s there was also a population of Saiga tatarica in China. Two populations of the Mongolian saiga (S. t. mongolica) inhabit the northwest of Mongolia (7).
Saigas typically inhabit open dry steppe and semi desert grasslands of Central Asia and Pre-Caspian region. They prefer open areas free from dense vegetation where they run quickly (up to 50 miles per hour) to avoid predators such as wolves and humans (7).
Classified as Critically Endangered (CR) on the IUCN Red List 2007 (1), and listed on Appendix II of CITES (3). It is also listed on Appendix II of the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species (CMS or Bonn Convention) (4). Subspecies: Mongolian saiga (Saiga tatarica mongolica) classified as Endangered (EN) and the Russian saiga (S. t. tatarica) is Critically Endangered (CR) on the IUCN Red List 2007 (1).
All the saiga populations have suffered from habitat degradation, poaching and disturbance. Droughts or severe winters, diseases and predation pressure from wolves can also act as threats of saiga populations, although these are unlikely to be major causes of the decline (10).
Saiga within the former Soviet Union were the subject of concerted conservation programmes (2), so much so that the population reached almost one million individuals (1). Management of the species has now broken down however and illegal poaching is rife (1). Saiga horns are highly valued in traditional Chinese medicine as cures for illnesses such as strokes (2). Only the males of the species bear horns and poaching thus produces a population where there are far more females than males. The average life span of saiga is only around three to four years and if females do not mate every year the species can rapidly decline (2).
Another main cause of the saiga's decline is the overgrazing of its pastures, general habitat degradation and construction of roads and canals. Before 1991 numbers of livestock, particularly sheep increased enormously. As a result the quality of the pastures for saiga has deteriorated (7).
The saiga antelope’s listing on Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) means that any trade in this species should be carefully monitored (3). Hunting is banned throughout the saiga’s range (9). Further research into saiga reproductive behaviour is needed to assess the impact of hunting and this may be used to produce an effective conservation action plan (7).
In order to conserve this species, protected areas for lambing and rutting should be established where saiga populations are present. Given that poaching for domestic consumption is now a major threat, strengthening of anti-poaching law enforcement is crucial. It is considered to be more important to fund national conservation action than to improve the international trade control (7).
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