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All Creatures,

Episode 81: Saiga Struggling to Survive

April 02, 2019

The critically-endangered Saiga antelope has been on the brink of extinction many times. Today, this relic from the Ice Age is still in danger of being lost forever. Their story is a warning to us about all the other species suffering from similar fates.

Saiga History

The Saiga are classified as antelope and belong to the Bovidae family. While bovids evolved for tens of millions of years, the Saiga are considered a relatively young species. Their history dates back more than 1 million years and evolved to survive in some of the harshest climates on Earth. It is believed the Saiga once walked side by side the mammoth during the last Ice Age.

There are two species of Saiga:

  • Saiga tatarica tatarica (Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan)
  • Saiga t. mongolica (Mongolian)

The major reason Saiga are on the cusp of extinction is due to the genetic bottlenecks in their most recent history. In the early 1900s due to over hunting the Saiga were reduced to a population of about 1000 animals. With protection, the Saiga rebounded to over 2 million in the 1960s. However, with the fall of the Soviet Union, the Saiga were once again hunted and their population reduced to just over 20,000. Protections were once again put in place and their numbers increased.

In 2015, the film crew of Planet Earth II observed a massive die off of Saiga. The crew was there to film the incredible mass migration of Saiga with the females gathering to give birth. That year was an incredibly warm one and scientists believe coupled with the stress of calving, a non-lethal bacteria carried in their nose was absorbed into the Saiga’s bloodstream becoming toxic, leading to the die off of nearly 200,000 Saiga.

Saiga Physiology

Saiga are characterized by an extremely large nose. Their noses serve to warm air in the extremely frigid winters and helps filter dust in the extremely dry summers.

Male Saiga have a set of beautiful horns that can reach up to 10 inches (25 cm) in length. Other facts include:

  • Live 10 to 12 years
  • Eat grasses, low shrubs, lichen
  • About the size of sheep
  • Over 2/3 females give birth to twins
  • Coats are yellow to red in summer and get thicker and grey in the winter
  • Males use horns to fight during mating season, which can often lead to fatalities
  • Can run up to 80 mph

Saiga Conservation

The Saiga continues to remain extremely vulnerable to extinction due to its lack of genetic diversity and the continuation of human exploitation. Populations of the Saiga in Russia and the surrounding areas are estimated at 120,000 animals. The Mongolian populations are at a low 5,000 animals. The 2015 large die off shows just how vulnerable these animals are. Furthermore, the Saiga demonstrates how other animal populations are just as vulnerable to disease and other environmental stresses.

Organizations to Support

Saiga Conservation Alliance 

 

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