Saiga antelopes, a small species of antelope about the size of goat, were once as prolific in the Central Asian steppes as bison were on the plains of North America. Illegal hunting, human disruptions to their habitat, and a 2015 bacterial plague, combined with other threats to their survival, has led to a precipitous population decline, placing the Saiga tatarica on the verge of extinction in Kazakhstan. In 2002, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the world’s leading conservation body, added the saiga antelope to its Red List of critically endangered species.
The saiga is a small species of antelope, about the size of a goat. These antelope live in the steppes–arid grasslands that encompass parts of Eastern Europe and most of Central Asia. Kazakhstan is home to an estimated 90% of the world’s saiga population, with other remaining populations found in Mongolia, Russia, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.
PHYSICAL CHARACTERISTICS AND BEHAVIOR
The distinctive physical characteristic of the saiga is its massive, trunk-like proboscis. The long nose performs an important function, filtering dust rising from the dry ground in the summer and warming the air during freezing winters. There’s also evidence that the saiga’s stubby trunk aids in communication and choosing mates. Loud nasal roars in male saiga are thought to advertise body size and help males attract females.
In the spring, saiga migrate across the steppe by the thousands. Despite their awkward running gait, saigas can travel more than 50 miles a day on their migrations and can clock more than 40 miles per hour.
Every spring female saiga congregate and give birth en masse over roughly a week’s time, usually to twin calves or even triplets. This mass birthing allows enough calves a fighting chance to survive attacks by wolves, coyotes, eagles, and other predators.
DECLINING NUMBERS – THREATS
Saiga date to the Ice Age, once roaming by the millions in a range that stretched from England to Siberia, even into Alaska. Eventually, the saiga reached the steppes of Central Asia, where they continued to thrive. Reports from the 1900s describe huge herds covering the entire steppe.
Unfortunately for the saiga, the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s was accompanied by widespread corruption, unemployment, and poverty, leading to increased hunting for food and trade. Booming meat demand took its toll on populations, as did the lucrative trade market for the male antelopes’ horns, prized in traditional Asian medicine. Practitioners grind the foot-long horns into a powder, using the medicine to treat headaches, sore throats, fevers, and diseases.
Other human activities also disrupt saiga habitats, including construction of fences, highways, train tracks, and pipelines that impede their seasonal migration to new pastures.
Climate change has also contributed to steep declines in saiga populations; notably, to a mass die-off in 2015. That May, in less than one month, a lethal bacterial outbreak killed 211,000 saigas in Kazakhstan – more than half of the entire species. Scientists attributed the cause of the die-off to the Pasteurella multocida bacteria, which seems to normally exist harmlessly in saigas’ tonsils. The bacteria somehow invaded the saigas’ guts, poisoning their blood and breaking down their organs, leading to death within a few hours. Research shows that the Pasteurella multocida bacteria grows out of control when hotter and wetter temperatures than normal prevail, which was the case just before the 2015 outbreak.
WHY SAIGA MATTER
Saiga play a crucial role in the steppe’s ecosystem. The steppe’s extreme temperatures and modest amount of rainfall allow only grasses, herbs, and shrubs to grow there, although the variety is impressive—some 2,000 species of plants grow in northern Kazakhstan alone, about 30 found nowhere else. Saiga help maintain this vegetative balance through grazing and by carrying seeds in their fur that drop to the ground during their migrations between summer and winter pastures. They are also an important prey species for large carnivores (wolves, eagles, foxes, and wild dogs).
Conservation efforts by the Kazakh government and community organizations to halt the saiga’s decline have supported a dramatic turnaround in the antelope’s fortunes. Among other measures, the government has banned saiga hunting and trading in saiga products and upped maximum jail sentences for poaching to 10 years.
In recent years, saiga populations have rebounded. A 2023 aerial survey counted more than 1.9 million saigas in Kazakhstan, a 45 percent increase over 2022 numbers and a substantial improvement over 2004 numbers, when the saiga count estimated only 21,000 animals. The aerial survey recorded the largest concentration of saigas (1.13 million individuals), in Ural Oblast, followed by Betpakdala (745,300) and Ust-Yurt (39,700).
Organizations working to protect the saiga and its habitat and to restore populations are the:
- Saiga Conservation Alliance, a network of researchers and conservationists established in September 2006
- Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity of Kazakhstan (ACBK)
- Altyn Dala Conservation Initiative, an international effort launched in 2005