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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 North America during the Pleistocene. Today, the nominate 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. The Mongolian subspecies (S. t. mongolica) is found only in western Mongolia.
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 semidesert steppes, 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 the Yukon. 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 begin 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.
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. 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.
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