The saiga (Saiga tatarica) is a medium sized (60 to 80 cm tall) antelope that inhabits the steppes of Central Asia and is classified by IUCN as “critically endangered”. They live mainly in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, although they can be found in various areas of Russia (Kazan), China and Mongolia. Males are somewhat larger than females and have antlers measuring between 25 and 30 cm. They have a peculiar-looking oval head, but by far their most characteristic feature is their trunk-like nose. It is highly flexible and theories about its function suggest that the saiga uses it to filter dust from the air during the driest times of the year and heat the cold air they breathe during the winter.

They are nomadic animals, moving in large groups in search of pasture. Their migrations are seasonal, taking them from the steppes in summer to desert areas in winter. During the mating season, a male will control a group of up to 30 females and defend them aggressively. Fighting between males is a major cause of mortality, usually a result of exhaustion.

Male saiga in the steppe. Photo by vz maze | Shutterstock.com
Male saiga in the steppe. Photo by vz maze | Shutterstock.com

The saiga in fiction

This bizarre antelope, virtually unknown outside the parts of Asia where it lives, has inspired some famous fictional characters over the years. The most well-known of these is Alf, an alien who first hit the screens in the 80s and reached a large audience. Another character, instantly recognisable by his peculiar nose, is Watto, from one of the Star Wars films, however his influence never reached that of Alf.

Alf (NBC), Watto (Star Wars) and female saiga. Photo by Victor Tyakht | Shutterstock.com
Alf (NBC), Watto (Star Wars) and female saiga. Photo by Victor Tyakht | Shutterstock.com

Poaching – prized antlers for Chinese traditional medicine

In traditional Chinese medicine, the powder obtained from the saiga antlers constitutes a powerful remedy in the treatment of rheumatic and cardiac diseases. The antlers are sawn off the animal during autumn and ground or dried in slices. The excessive hunting of these antelopes led to a dramatic decline in the numbers, from more than one million to just 50,000 in the 1990s. It was at that time that CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) added the saiga to its list of protected species.

Chinese medicine created from saiga horns. M. L. Coghlan et al., PLoS Genetics, 8 (April 2012)
Chinese medicine created from saiga horns. M. L. Coghlan et al., PLoS Genetics, 8 (April 2012)

Sexual inequality – the absence of males

As a consequence of the intensive hunting of males, there is a serious sexual imbalance in the species. There are not enough males for the number of females, which slows down the recovery of the species and becomes a contributing factor in the decline of its population.

Epidemics – diseases that affect the saiga

The introduction of domestic livestock into the saiga’s natural habitats, and subsequent abandonment in some areas, brought the species into contact with diseases that have caused severe losses to its population. One example is the disappearance of some 90,000 saigas in Mongolia in 2015 as a result of an epidemic of a disease transmitted by sheep and goats.

In addition to these diseases, others have also greatly reduced the population of saigas. An example of this, according to the Saiga Conservation Alliance (SCA), is the ‘Pasteurella multocida’ bacterium. The bacteria live in the respiratory system of these animals without harming them, but in 2015 it became virulent, killing 200,000 members of the species in Kazakhstan.

Habitat disruption – intensive agriculture and livestock farming

Another important factor in the decline of this species is the destruction of its habitat, particularly its migratory routes. The abandonment of agriculture and grazing in certain areas covered with grass has left these animals without food on their migration routes, and with it, another cause of high mortality.

Predators – the wolf and a shrinking population

Although it is not such a major problem, the radical decline of saiga antelope has left them significantly exposed to natural predators. Wolves posed the greatest natural threat, although other species such as eagles, which mainly attack young, have also been known to prey on saigas.

Avoiding extinction

Saiga was removed from the list of game animals, sale of its meat is forbidden, as is trade in its antlers. There are programmes for the reintroduction and protection of the species, but these measures do not seem to be enough. Despite the efforts of international conservation organisations, this antelope remains vulnerable to extinction, mainly due to illegal poaching, disruption of its migratory routes and contact with domestic livestock. Its population has fallen from 1.25 million in 1970 to 50,000 today (mostly in Kazakhstan), and the fragmentation of the former Soviet Union has halted the work of conservation programmes.

Saiga hunting in Kazakhstan. Photo from www.rferl.org
Saiga hunting in Kazakhstan. Photo from www.rferl.org

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