Saiga tatarica populations are concentrated in three main areas within central Asia: Mongolia, Kazakhstan, and Kalmykia. (Milner-Gulland 1994)
Biogeographic Regions: palearctic (Native )
The most striking feature of a saiga is its large head with a huge mobile nose that hangs over its mouth. Males have a pair of long, waxy colored horns with ring-like ridges along their length. Except for the unusual snout and horns, S. tatarica look similar to small sheep. Saiga antelopes are approximately .6 m to .8 m tall at shoulder height and are approximately 1 m to 1.5 m long. They have long, thin legs and a slightly robust body. During the summer, S. tatarica have a short coat that is yellowish red on the back and neck with a paler underside. In the winter, the coat becomes thicker and longer. The winter pelage is dull gray on the back and neck and a very light, brown-gray shade on the belly. Saiga antelopes also have a short tail.
(Heptner, et. al. 1988; Sokolov 1974)
Range mass: 30 to 45 kg.
Other Physical Features: endothermic ; bilateral symmetry
Saiga tatarica inhabit dry steppes and semi deserts. Herds are found in grassy plains void of rugged terrain and hills. (Heptner, et. al. 1988)
Terrestrial Biomes: savanna or grassland
Habitat and Ecology
The Saiga is a migratory species with widely separated summer (northern) and winter (southern) ranges. The species lives in large herds, usually up to thousand individuals. It has a high rate of reproduction and recruitment. In years with a favourable climate the population can increase by up to 60% in a single year (Chan et al. 1995). Very few animals in a population are more than 3.5 years old, indicating that the population is almost completely renewed after four years (Bekenov et al. 1998).
Saiga antelopes are herbivores. They graze on over one hundred different plant species; the most important being grasses, prostrate summer cypress, saltworts, fobs, sagebrush, and steppe lichens. (Heptner, et. al. 1988)
Life History and Behavior
Perception Channels: tactile ; chemical
Status: wild: 12.0 years.
Status: wild: 10.0 years.
Lifespan, longevity, and ageing
Female saigas reach sexual maturity at 7 to 8 months while the males which reach sexual maturity at 2 years. The breeding period lasts from late November to late December. A female is pregnant for 5 months and usually gives birth to two young. Young begin to graze at 4-8 days old. Lactation lasts for about four months. In captivity, young saigas occasionally nurse from unrelated adults; however, this has never been observed in the wild. (Rubin, et. al 1994; Sokolov 1974)
Range number of offspring: 1 to 3.
Average number of offspring: 1.3.
Range gestation period: 4.63 to 5.07 months.
Range weaning age: 2.5 to 4 months.
Key Reproductive Features: gonochoric/gonochoristic/dioecious (sexes separate); sexual
Average birth mass: 3500 g.
Average number of offspring: 1.7.
Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
Sex: male: 669 days.
Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
Sex: female: 331 days.
Parental Investment: extended period of juvenile learning
Molecular Biology and Genetics
Barcode data: Saiga tatarica
Below is the sequence of the barcode region Cytochrome oxidase subunit 1 (COI or COX1) from a member of the species.
See the BOLD taxonomy browser for more complete information about this specimen.
Other sequences that do not yet meet barcode criteria may also be available.
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Download FASTA File
Statistics of barcoding coverage: Saiga tatarica
Public Records: 1
Specimens with Barcodes: 1
Species With Barcodes: 1
Up until 1990, Saiga tatarica were successfully managed by the Soviet Union. However, the break-up of the Soviet state led to the end of the intense management of the saiga antelope. Currently, the population is rapidly declining due to severe poaching. (Milner-Gullan 1994)
US Federal List: no special status
CITES: appendix ii
IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: critically endangered
IUCN Red List Assessment
Red List Category
Red List Criteria
- 2003Critically Endangered(IUCN 2003)
- 2003Critically Endangered
- 2002Critically Endangered
- 1996Vulnerable(Baillie and Groombridge 1996)
In European Russia (Kalmykia), the Saiga population steeply declined after land reclamation of the Volga basin started, but the species remained numerous within the distribution area. In the 1970s the population recovered to ca.700,000–800,000 as a result of hunting regulation. However, since then the population has drastically declined. In 1980 there were an estimated 380,000 individuals, in 1996 there were 196,000, and by 2000 just 26,000 (see Milner-Gulland et al. 2001 for annual survey results for 1980–2000). At present there are no more than 18,000 animals in Kalmykia. Sex ratio is severely skewed; the proportion of males varies from 1 to 10% in different years.
The population of Mongolian Saiga increased from ca. 3,000 in 1998, to 5,200 in 2000 helped by favourable climatic conditions and active conservation measures by WWF–Mongolia. Numbers fell between 2000 and 2002 as a result of severe winters and summer drought. They continued to decline in 2002–2003, mainly because of poaching. Numbers were ca. 1,020 in 2003, and 750 in January 2004 (J. Chimeg, in litt.).
In total, the global population of Saiga is now estimated at ca.50,000, down from 1,250,000 in the mid-1970s, with most animals found in Kazakhstan.
The Mongolian Saiga has been legally protected since 1930. Two protected areas, Sharga NR (286,900 ha) and Mankhan NR (30,000 ha), were designated in 1993 to protect most of the remaining areas of occurrence.
Listed on CITES Appendix II.
Relevance to Humans and Ecosystems
Saiga tatarica occasionally trample agricultural plants and feed on crops. (Sokolov, 1974)
Saiga antelopes are valued for their fur, meat, and horns. Their horns are considered their most valuable feature. The horns are ground up and commonly used in Chinese medicine to reduce fevers. (But, et. al. 1990)
Positive Impacts: food ; body parts are source of valuable material
The saiga (Saiga tatarica) is a critically endangered antelope which 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 dominate subspecies (S. t. tatarica) is only found in one location in Russia (steppes of the northwest Precaspian region) 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 China and southwestern Mongolia. It was hunted extremely in Romania and Moldavia until it was extinct in these regions in the end of the XVIII 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 heats up the animals 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 considerable 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, the mothers give birth to two (in two thirds of all cases) or one single foal.
During the Ice Age, 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, — and 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 recently 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.
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 Saiga Conservation Alliance was started in the early 1990s as an informal network of researchers and conservationists to study and protect the critically endangered saiga antelope. The SCA was officially inaugurated in September 2006, and in November 2006 was granted Candidate Partner status by the Wildlife Conservation Network. SCA also publishes a bi-annual newsletter with latest updates from the field and range countries.
The horn of the saiga antelope is used in traditional Chinese medicine, and can sell for as much as $150. Demand for the horns have 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.
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