Home > Species > Large Herbivore database > Antelopes, Gazelles (Artiodactyla Bovidae Antilopinae) > Saiga Antelope
All authors except Grubb (2005) include the Mongolian saiga as a subspecies of saiga.
|Body Length||108-146 cm|
|Shoulder Height||60-80 cm|
|Tail Length||6-13 cm|
The saiga atelope is a very curious looking animal. It is recognizable by an extremely unusual, over-sized, and flexible, nose. Its internal structure is composed of an intricate network of bones, hairs and mucous-secreting glands. During summer migrations it helps filter out dust, kicked up by the herd and cools the animals blood. During the winter it heads up the frigid air before it is taken into the lungs, thereby reducing heat loss in its body.
The eyes are large with a dark brown iris. They are set at the end of bony knobs on either side of its head, giving it a bug-eyed look, and a wide angle to spot potential danger. Their eyesight is keen and they can see long distances. The rounded ears and the tail are short.
Thin legs support the short round body. Males typically have a head-body length of 123-146 cm, stand 70-80 cm at the shoulder and weigh between 32 and 51 kg. Females are smaller. Their head-body length ranges from 102-125 cm, the height at shoulder from 57-73 cm, and the body-weight from 21-41 kg.
The saiga has a woolly undercoat and an outer coat of coarse, bristly hairs, which protect it from the cold environment it lives in. In the summer it has a cinnamon-buff coat, which is rather thin compared to their winter coats. Their winter coat is almost entirely white and twice as long, and 70% thicker than their summer coat. The hair under its neck tends to be longer; males have a short mane on the neck. The hair on their legs stays short.
Only the males carry horns. These amber-coloured horns are almost translucent, and are tapered, heavily ridged, and very sharp. They can grow up to 55 cm and are valued in the Chinese traditional medicine.
Typical habitat consists of level or gently sloping steppes and semi deserts. They avoid slightly broken terrain, deserts, and bushy and hilly areas. Saiga go into hilly terrain in Mongolia, they move up the slopes in winter even in summer, were they were found around 1500 m and more.
More than 80 species of plants and lichens have been recorded in their diet, especially grasses, genera Stipa, Allium and Anabasis.
They require fairly good watering places and shallow snow cover in winter. They spend most of the time in winter in gravel, sand, and clay deserts, and in summer in semi deserts and rarely, steppes (due to live-stock competition in this habitat).
Ambling is the normal pace. Adults can run up to 80 km/h, lambs (8-15 days old) run at 40-50 km/h. Saiga are good swimmers.
The rutting season of the saiga is between late November and late december. The species is polygynous. Males will herd together a group of about 12 females, up to 50 females, and mark a breeding territory. While defending it against other males, fierce fights break out. Sometimes ending in the death of one of the males. Huge amounts of energy are spent defending territories, and in extreme winters, 97% of the sexually matures will not survive. Those males that do survive start off on their spring migration in April, forming herds of 10 to 2,000 animals.
In late winter/early spring the females gather in large herds and migrate to an appropriate breeding area. Gestation in a saiga last 140 days. Young females will usually give birth to a single lamb the first year, but then have two lambs the following years. Lambs are born at the end of March, beginning April, when all the females have gathered in a herd dropping their calves within a few days. The very short periods of rutting and lambing are adaptations to avoid predation. The calves are weaned at 3 to 4 months. Sexual maturity is 8 months for females and 20 months for males. Saiga live for 6 to 10 years.
Lambing grounds are usually situated near water and in places with sufficient food. Eight to ten days after giving birth, they set out northwards after the males.
|Gestation Period||140 days|
|Young per Birth||In the first year 1, subsequently 2 is normal|
|Weaning||At 3-4 months|
|Sexual Maturity||Females at 8 months, males at 20 months|
|Life span||6-10 years|
Once at their summer pastures they break up into smaller groups. Large groups form again in the fall, when the southward migration takes them back to the winter grounds, sometimes over 1,000 km. Saiga move between pasture grounds depending on snow depth (20 cm limiting), drought and rains, which stimulate growth of fresh vegetation.
Natural enemy of Saiga antelope are Wolf, (Sheperds’)dog, feral dog, Red Fox, Corsac Fox and raptors (e.g. Golden Eagle).
Dogs kill up to 50% of the lambs in Kalmykia. A scientist estimated that dogs kill >10,000 saiga lambs in Betpak-dala each year.
The world population is estimated between 67,000-72,000 individuals in 2006. Saiga is globally listed as Critical Endangered and this status now applies to both subspecies. In 2010 the world population increased to more than 100,000 animals. Variations in survey efforts and methodology between 2006 and 2010 could influence the differences.
Numbers of saiga occurring in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan vary from year to year, depending on the Ustyurt population in Kazakhstan and the severity of the winter.
Saiga populations have dramatically declined in the former Soviet Union, in a very short time period; 1 million in early 1980's to about 90,000 in 2000. The population showed a decline of around 90% over the 10 year period to 2005.
The population suffered also from dramatic fluctuations in Mongolia. The population increased from 3,000 in 1998 to 5,200 in 2000. Numbers dropped in 2000-2002 as a result of severe winters and summer drought. They continued to decline in 2002-2003, due to another severe winter and poaching. Numbers were 1,020 in 2003 and 750 in January 2004. Thanks to increased conservation action, including community based anti-poaching operations, education and cooperation with herder communities, the population started increasing again to approximately 8000 animals in 2010. While the population continues to grow and to spread, the very high number for 2010 are probably the result of an aerial count in 2010, which was more accurate than previous counts based on ground observations (which also confirmed an increase in 2010): see figure below.
|World ~ anno 2010||103,400-113,400||?|
|Russia, NW pre-caspian/Kalmykia||10,000-20,000||Stable|
|Ural (Kazakhstan, Russia)||27,100||Stable / increasing|
|Ustiurt (Kazakstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan)||4,900||Decreasing|
|Mongolia, Shargiin Gobi and Mankhan (Mongolian Saiga)||8,000||Increasing|
|Males||Females||Unknowns||Births (last 12 months)|
|Centre for Wild Animals of the Republic of Kalmykia||Unknown||Unknown|
|Wildlife Conservation breeding center, Gansu, China||Unknown||Unknown|
Historical distribution Saiga antilope
White: historic distribution of the Saiga (Saiga tatarica)
Green: current distribution of Saiga tatarica tatarica
Red: current distribution of Saiga tatarica mongolica
Source Wikipwedia, by Altaileopard, after V. G. Heptner: Mammals of the Sowjetunion Vol. I Ungulates. Leiden, New York, 1989 ISBN 9004088741 and E. J. Milner-Gulland et al.: Dramatic decline in saiga antelope populations. Oryx, Vol 35, No 4, October 2001.
Historical distribution of the saiga included Europe up to Poland, Romania and Hungary, but it has been extinct in Ukraine since at least the mid-1800's.
It became extinct in China sometime during the 1960's or 1970's, and Saiga tatarica tatarica was extirpated in Mongolia about 1960.
The nominate subspecies Saiga tatarica tatarica once occured in the Dzungarian Gobi of south-western Mongolia, but became extinct there about 50 years. The range of the endemic Mongolian subspecies is separated from that of the nominate form by the Altai Mountains.
The saiga is currently found from the steppes and semi-deserts northwest of the Caspian Sea, east to the Shargiin Gobi in western Mongolia. Saiga tatarica mongolica is endemic to Mongolia, while the nominate form Saiga tatarica tatarica occupies the remaining range of the species.
In Mongolia are currently two subpopulations. The main subpopulation is in the Shargiin Gobi, Khusiin Gobi and Durgun Tal in western Mongolia. A small population exists in Mankhan in an area of 20x30 km, south of Khar Us Lake in western Mongolia. During this century, their range in Mongolia has contracted significantly, especially in the southeast, to about 20% of the original range.
Current distribution in Kazakhstan covers desert and semi desert areas from the Caspian Sea and Volga River in the west, to Lake Balkhash in the east, and from the Tien Shan Mountains in the south, north to about latitude 50°N. Within this overall range, there are three separate populations: Ural (between the Volga and Ural Rivers in western Kazakhstan); Ustyurt (between the Caspian and Aral Seas); and Betpak-dala (central and eastern Kazakhstan). Each of the three populations occupies separate summer and winter ranges, migrating north or northwest in spring, and south or southeast in autumn. There is also a small, introduced saiga population on Barsakelmes Island in the Aral Sea.
Saiga occur only in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan during severe winters when animals from the Kazakhstan population that winter on the Ustyurt Plateau, are forced southwards and reach northern Turkmenistan and northwest Uzbekistan, principally the Sarykamysh Depression.
The current distribution in Russia is limited to steppes and semi deserts southwest of the Volga River and northwest of the Caspian Sea in the Autonomous Republic of Kalmykia. Current distribution covers only 20,000-25,000 km², a significant reduction from the 100,000-120,000 km² occupied when their range was at its greatest extent in 1957-60. In severe winters, saiga may penetrate south to Dagestan in the eastern Caucasus.
After the break-up of the Soviet Union, funding and infrastructure for saiga management has collapsed. This has led to uncontrolled large-scale kills for meat and horns. Another reason for the rapid decline of the population was the very unbalanced sex ratio. As this has led to a male-biased population, which resulted in a reproductive collapse.
Throughout most of its former range, the convertion of steppe to agricultural land, competition with livestock (overgrazing by domestic livestock) and hunting/poaching pressure pushed saiga to sub-optimal, semi desert habitat. Population fluctuations are often drastic because of severe winter conditions (dzhut), diseases (particularly pasteurellosis), and forage shortages.
In Kazakhstan, where their numbers are greatest, they are in need of protection because of population declines caused by an increase in illegal hunting, primarily for their horns used in traditional Chinese medicine. They have long been hunted for their meat, hide, and horns; and in Kazakhstan, the annual harvest of 62,000-112,000 animals from licensed hunting has been noticed during recent years.
The wintering population is often hunted twice, once in Kazakhstan and once in Uzbekistan (A.A.Luschekina in litt.). Hunting and poaching led to extreme flight distances (up to 2 km) and leads to increased disturbances through vehicles.
Other factors that threaten saiga are conversion of rangeland for cultivation, construction of roads, settlements, irrigation canals, and fenced pastures. These may interrupt saiga migration routes and contribute to habitat fragmentation. Overgrazing of the range lands also leads to competition for water sources.
An MOU on saiga conservation came into force under the CMS in 2006, signed by the governments of Kazakhstan, Russia, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
A medium term work programme (Action plan concerning conservation, restoration and sustainable use of the Saiga Antelope - Saiga tatarica tatarica) was agreed which lists priority actions for the species as a whole and for the individuals populations - in English and Russian (CMS 2010).
In Mongolia saiga are legally protected since 1930 and included in the Mongolian Red Book. Two nature reserves were designated in 1993 to conserve saiga populations in western Mongolia.
Hunted for skin, hide and horns (Chinese medicine).
Efficient anti-poaching activities, habitat restoration and collaboration in developing a system of environmental partnership, including research on biology and ecology of the species, protected area management and establishment, rangeland management, policy development, training and capacity building, associated with current conservation activities.
Further work on captive-breeding of Saiga is vital to facilitate reintroduction to former areas of their range.
National policy and politics, recommendations to add.
Local policy and politics
Efficient anti-poaching activities, habitat restoration and collaboration in developing a system of environmental partnership, including research on biology and ecology of the species, protected area management and establishment, rangeland management, policy development, training and capacity building, associated with current conservation activities. Further work on captive-breeding of saiga is vital to facilitate reintroduction to former areas of their range.
A uniform scientifically sound monitoring system should be developed and used throughout the saiga range.