- The saiga is an antelope from Central Asia.
- They’re critically endangered. There are less than 20,000 mature saigas in the world.
- This is incredibly worrying considering there used to be about 1 million of them 40 years ago.
- One of the reasons they’re disappearing rapidly is because their horns are used in traditional Chinese medicine. So, even though they don’t target females, it creates a sex imbalance that results in reproductive failures.
- Luckily there are now conservation measures and anti-poaching laws in place, which had stabilized populations a little bit until the great epizootic of 2015-16.
- The black market still exists and as saigas become more rare, prices per horn have risen from about $150 to up to $2400.
- There are two subspecies.
- The western subspecies , The Russian saiga, Saiga Tatarica Tatarica is found in Russia and Kazakhstan, and migrates south to Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan in the winter.
- The eastern subspecies, The Mongolian saiga, Saiga Tatarica Mongolica is only found in western Mongolia
- They’re 60-80 cm tall at the shoulder and can weigh up to 65 Kg, 150 pounds, pretty much the same as Muggsy Bogues.
- They’re 100-140 cm long.
- The saiga lives in cold climates, and like other animals in their habitat, their coat gets longer in the winter. It goes from about 2-3 cm in the summer, to 4-7 cm in the winter.
- It also changes colours. It looks yellow, or sandy brown, in the summer and greyish in the winter.
- Their horns are pretty badass too. Only males have it but they can be up to 38 cm long and have up to 20 rings. Mongolian Saiga males have smaller horns and only grow to about 20 cm.
- Saigas are herbivores and migrate vast distances in search of better weather and more food.
- They’re prey to canids like dogs and wolves, and to birds of prey like eagles.
- They eat plant matter that is unpalatable to other animals such as lichens, grass, cypress, saltworts, fobs and sage grass.
- The migrate in groups of 30 or 40, but the total numbers are in the tens of thousands.
- They’re the only members of their genus.
- Their closest surviving cousin is the springbok, which is crazy because those guys are only found in southern Africa.
- During the holocene (in the past 12,000 years) they used to be found in Eastern Russia Beringia. This was a third subspecies called S. T. borealis.
- Before the holocene, they used to be found all the way from modern day England, across all Europe and Asia, Beringia (the land bridge between Asia and North America), Alaska, and possibly Canada, but obvs went extinct in most of their range.
- Humans are the reason we can’t have nice things.
- Saiga populations have suffered several ups and downs.
- They were almost extinct in 1920 but they were able to recover due to protections, especially by the USSR.
- Their meat is supposed to be delicious and their horns are used in traditional medicine.
- In the 1950s there were 2 million saigas in the USSR alone.
- Because of the high numbers, their horns were encouraged to be marketed in order to protect rhinos.
- The fall of the USSR led to a free-for-all for saiga horns, which shrunk their populations.
- Global warming has also allowed new pathogens to enter their environment. And since saigas have gone through at least 2 population bottlenecks (one in the holocene and another one in the 20th century) they’re not well equipped to fight them.
- In 1988 a disease killed over 400,000 saigas, ⅔ of the total poulation at the time.
- Their populations had rebounded to about 250,000 saigas when the latest bacterial infection spread and killed
- Their genetic pool is very small and if there’s a disease that takes down 1 saiga, it’s very likely to be lethal to thousands of other saigas.
- Two recent and particularly deadly examples happened in 2010 when about 35,000 saigas died suddenly and in 2015-16, when 120,000 died the same way, thus reducing their number by up to 50%.
- The most likely cause of this is a bacterial infection called pasteurellosis, a commonly harmless bacteria that managed to enter the bloodstream, becoming lethal. The change of the behaviour of the bacterium is still unknown.
- The scariest thing about this is that it had 100% mortality. There were no sick animals. After the dust settled there were only healthy survivors and dead saigas.
- A separate disease killed about 2500 saigas in Mongolia. This was caused by a virus commonly called Goat Plague.
- Poaching of course continues to be a big problem.
- Also, physical barrier are huge problem. Barbed wire at the uzbekistan – kazakhstan border stops their migrations and lead to starvation.
- Luckily for saigas, their survival strategy is based on high reproductive rates, with females giving birth to triplets every year.
- Population booms and crashes might be par for the course, but we’re creating a world where the saiga population peaks are low and the valleys are catastrophic.
- The most interesting thing about the saiga is their nose.
- Their nostrils are bloated and enlarged and point downward
- This is supposed to filter dust in the summer (imagine the size of the boogers) and warm up incoming air in the winter. It might also cool air down in the summer.
- Especially during migrations, when thousands of saigas literally kick up a dust storm, the dust seems to be incredibly thick. They need a proper filter to prevent it from
- During rutting season the male’s nose gets even bigger, and when they shake their heads it makes a squishy sound.
- This suggests that the noses play a part in sexual selection. (who wouldn’t be wooed by being serenaded with sensual snot music)
- Their nose is a host to the same pasteurellosis bacteria that can kill thousands in one go. For some reason inside of the nose it’s harmless, but in the bloodstream is deadly.