The Endangered Saiga Antelope of Central Asia

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"The Endangered Saiga Antelope of Central Asia"
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The saiga antelope of Central Asia is an extraordinary-looking creature. Its signature feature is the nose: oddly long, rubbery, and flexible- like a tapir's trunk, almost, or an elephant seal's snout. This nose is an adaptation to the saiga's home on the cold, windy plains. Vast, labrynthine nasal passages help to warm up that frigid Siberian air before it enters the main body, and also filter out sand and dust in the hot, dry summer.

Saiga are about the size of an American pronghorn antelope, with sturdy bodies supported by spindly legs. The males have foot-long horns used to fight for and defend harems of up to 50 females. Sadly for the saiga, those horns command about $100/kilogram in China, where they are used in medicine. Fortunately, a female is capable of producing two or even three calves in a single year. This incredible fertility is all that has saved the saiga from extinction.

Once these antelope roamed all across the steppe of Eurasia from the Caucasus and Carpathian Mountains of south-eastern Europe, through Kazakhstan, Russia, and into Mongolia. Before 1900, enormous herds blanketed the steppe on their annual migrations. There were literally millions of saiga, traveling several hundred miles each way between their summer and winter grazing areas. Intense hunting pressure in the late 19th century nearly extirminated the once-grand herds. By the time the Soviet Union was created in 1917, saiga numbered only a few thousand.

The Soviet government closed the country's borders in 1919, ending international trade in saiga horns and meat. It also banned saiga hunting until 1958, by which time the antelope's numbers had rebounded to more than 2 million. Saiga had gone from critically endangered to the most populous hoofed animal in the Soviet Union, in less than 50 years!

But lightning-quick gains can just as quickly come undone. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, regulation of hunting ceased, borders reopened, and poaching exploded. Impoverished villagers can't resist the lure of an increasingly wealthy Chinese market. The horns of 3 or 4 antelope can fetch $100, which is three months' salary to many Kazakhs, Russians, and Mongols. Even the fast-breeding saiga has no chance against such sustained slaughter. The National Wildlife Foundation cites the Betpakdala area in Kazakhstan as one horrendous example: between 1993 and 2002, saiga numbers there went from over 500,000 to less than 4,000. In less than a decade, poachers had reduced the saiga to 0.8% of their former population. Hunters target the horned males, which make up 25% of a healthy herd. In some areas, males are now less than 1% of the population, and females are competing for them rather than the other way around! Many females don't have a chance to mate, which obviously hinders population recovery.

Conservationists are working hard to enlist local people in the fight to save saiga. It's an uphill battle, though. Economic conditions are so bad in the saiga's range that people will always be lured by the promise of quick cash from poaching. The migratory nature of this antelope means that it isn't enough to protect them in one small region- the whole migration path needs to be patrolled to fend off poachers. Captive-breeding programs are now underway, but unless the demand for saiga horn ends, it's hard to believe that these amazing creatures will experience another miraculous return from the brink of extinction.


BBC "Planet Earth" DVD

"Saga of the Saiga"- National Wildlife Magazine


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