What Is a Saiga and Why Should We Care About It?

The saiga is an unusual ungulate with a dramatic conservation story. (Photo: Saiga Conservation Alliance).

This strange antelope looks like something out of the ice age. That's because it is. The saiga is a small species of antelope found in Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Russia, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. It once ranged across Europe and Asia, grazing among mammoths and dodging saber-toothed tigers.

Though it is small at about the same size as a goat, it is a true standout thanks to its unusual nose. This enlarged proboscis protects the animal from breathing in dust during the dry summers and warms the air it breathes during cold winters. It is also a standout animal for the beautiful twisted amber-colored horns sported by males of the species.

It is this horn that is partly the reason why the species has experienced a staggering population drop.

male and female saiga antelope graze
A male saiga grazes next to a female, showing off the species' beautiful horns. Saiga Conservation Alliance

Saigas Are in Trouble

The Wildlife Conservation Network states, "The saiga population crashed by 95% in fifteen years, the fastest decline ever recorded for a mammal species ... The fate of the saiga was closely tied to the economic downfall of the USSR in 1991, which resulted in the collapse of rural economies and in turn led to widespread unemployment and poverty. Saiga poaching provided a source of food and income. Saiga grazing is also threatened by increasing livestock numbers."

Hunted for Their Horns

The horns are sold to Chinese markets where it is believed to have medicinal effects, however there is no scientific founding for any health benefits.

"Only saiga males bear the precious horn and as a result poachers aim to kill males," says the Saiga Conservation Trust. "Unfortunately, because of this selective hunting for males, the number of adult males dropped dramatically. During the rut there were not enough males to mate with all the females, which led to a reproductive collapse. The direct poaching offtake coupled with the reproductive collapse meant that saiga populations declined at unprecedented rates."

Saigas declined from well over a million individuals to a low of 20,000. Today, the population hovers somewhere around 50,000 saiga across the entire range.

When it comes to poaching, saigas have little protection. According to Eurasianet, "Saiga horns are sold to smugglers for a pittance in Kazakhstan: In one case reported in 2012, a man was buying horns for around $80 a pair and selling them on for $500 a kilo, while in China they can reportedly fetch up to $4,000 a kilogram. Conservationists say the penalties for killing the endangered species are too low to serve as a deterrent: Most poachers get off with a fine, or – more rarely – a short jail sentence of just 15 days."

Natural Threats

The population of saiga is unstable at best. On top of poaching and habitat loss, there is also a strange and repeated mass die off to contend with. In 2010, a mysterious illness killed over 12,000 saiga, creating a serious blow to the species as a whole. The same thing happened again in 2012. And now terrible news comes out this week that it is happening again, with now over 10,000 saigas found dead in just one week from an unknown cause. The BBC reports, "Because of the deaths, an emergency situation has been declared in the Zholoba area of the Amangeldi district in northern Kazakhstan."

UPDATE: As of the most recent estimates, the die-off in May 2015 represented as much as half of the species. More than 150,000 adult saigas, and as many as 211,000 saigas total were likely killed in the mass die-off.

This happened just after the Saiga Conservation Trust reported a great breeding year and an uptick in the overall population.

saiga antelope drinking from a pond
The saiga population has seen a come-back before after serious conservation efforts. Will it be given the chance to come back from the brink again?. Saiga Conservation Alliance

The Kazakh Deputy Agriculture Minister Erlan Nysanbaev states that pasteurellosis, an illness caused by bacterium, is the cause. After the deaths in 2010 when pasteurellosis was also cited as the cause of death, the Saiga Conservation Alliance wrote, "Although the deaths are currently being ascribed to pasteurellosis, the underlying trigger remains to be identified. Pasteurellosis is caused by a bacterium that lives naturally in healthy individuals, but can cause acute illness and rapid death if the animal’s immune system is compromised, either by another infection, poisoning, stress or malnutrition."

Conservation Efforts

Getting at the heart of what is causing these die offs and fixing it is a vital piece of the conservation puzzle. Work is being put into improving local economies so there is no need to poach for meat or horns, increasing and enforcing the penalties for poaching, and inspiring and educating local communities on the value of protecting saigas; but there won't be a complete solution for bringing this species back from the brink of extinction without also getting at the heart of what is triggering these mass die offs year after year.

“I’ve worked in wildlife disease all my life, and I thought I’d seen some pretty grim things,” Richard A. Kock, of the Royal Veterinary College in London, said in a telephone interview with the New York Times. “But this takes the biscuit.”

Kock's team has done an extensive survey and theorize that additional stress factors on the antelope, including a stormy spring and rough weather based on climate change, have transformed what is normally a harmless bacteria carried by the antelope into a deadly infection that can kill the affected animal within hours. The researchers are worried that it could be something that causes the extinction of the species in rapid time.

“If there are weather triggers that are broad enough, you could actually have extinction in one year," Kock said.

It is still unknown exactly what caused the drop in the saigas' resistance, and how they might be protected from a repeat mass die-off. A meeting last week among governments and conservationists held in Uzbekistan worked on a five-year plan to protect saigas, including improving migration routes and cracking down on poaching to help restore the populations. Experts note that perhaps the best way to protect the saiga at this point is to do everything possible to increase their population so that another outbreak doesn't wipe out the species entirely, and experts have more time to figure out a way to improve their resistence to the bacteria.

If you want to help the research and protection of saiga antelope, you can make a donation to the Saiga Conservation Alliance.