Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Saiga antelope

Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Artiodactyla
Family: Bovidae
Genus: Saiga
Species: Saiga tatarica
Conservation Status: Critically Endangered
Common Name: Saiga antelope, Saiga

Saigas are nomadic animals, best known for their distinctive enlarged noses that hang down over their mouth. The species originally inhabited a vast area, covering the steppes and semi-desert regions of south-eastern Europe and Central Asia from the Precaspian steppes to Mongolia and western China. The species also lived in North America during the Pleistocene period.

At present, the one of the two surviving subspecies (S. t. tatarica) can be found in one location in Russia (steppes of the northwest Precaspian region) and three areas in Kazakhstan (the Ural, Ustiurt and Betpak-dala populations). The other (S. t. mongolica) can only be found in western Mongolia.

The species became extinct in China by the 1960s, and in Ukraine during the 18th century.

Saiga antelope Description
An average saiga stands 0.6–0.8 m (2 ft 0 in–2 ft 7 in) at the shoulder and has a weight of 36 to 63 kg (79 to 139 lb). Males are larger than females. Adult males have two almost vertical, semitranslucent horns which are ringed in the bottom sections.

Saigas are easily recognisable by their distinctive mobile proboscis, an  unusual, over-sized, flexible nose structure. The proboscis is believed to filter out airborne dust during the dry summer migrations and to enable cold air to be warmed before it enters the lungs during the winter.

They have long, thin legs and a slightly robust body. The tail is short and the eyes are large with a dark brown iris. 

During the summer, their coat is short and yellowish red on the back and neck. The coat takes a white colour and becomes thicker and longer during the winter, being about 70 percent thicker compared to the summer. The underbelly is light in colour throughout the year, and there is a small mane on the underside of their neck.

Not much is known about the average lifespan in the wild. One wild born specimen was about 10.5 years old when it died in captivity while there have been recorded to live up to 12 years in the wild. Females reach sexual maturity one year after birth and males after a year and 9 to 10 months.

They can reach speeds of up to 50 miles an hour (80 kilometres/hour) during their long migrations.

Newborn saiga

Saiga antelope Behaviour & Reproduction
They are diurnal, migratory and nomadic animals that form large herds.

They undertake seasonal migrations in large groups from summer pastures in steppe grassland to winter pastures in desert areas, being able to cover considerable distances (exceeding 72 miles/day). They can swim across rivers, but they avoid steep or rugged areas.

The rut begins late in November when males fight for the possession of females. During this period, the noses of males swell up while the hair tufts below their eyes are covered in a sticky secretion. Males don't feed much during rutting and continuously take part in violent and often deadly fights. Up to 90 % of males may die during this time, with most casualties occurring from exhaustion. The surviving winners lead "harems", consisting of 5 to 50 females.

At the end of April, females give birth to usually two youngs  (2/3 ratio). When born, they have an average weight of 3,5 kg (~7.7 lbs).  All females of the herd give birth within a week of each other. The calves are initially concealed in vegetation. The herd begins to disperse into smaller herds, once the calves are a few days old. The smaller groups then head northwards to the summer feeding grounds. Then, the small groups break off, to reform once again for the journey to come next autumn.  It takes about  2.5 to 4 months for the calves to wean.

The gestation period lasts about 140 to 150 days. In captivity, young saigas have been recorded to occasionally nurse from unrelated adults, however, this has never been observed in the wild.

Male saiga antelope
Male saiga antelope

Saiga antelope Diet
They are herbivore animals, grazing on more than one hundred different plant species, with the most important being grasses, prostrate summer cypress, saltworts, fobs, sagebrush, and steppe lichens

Saiga antelope Predators
Wolves are the main natural predator of adult and new born saigas. Foxes and stray dogs prey on newborn calves.

Female Saiga tatarica
Female Saiga

Saiga antelope Conservation Status and Threats
Their overall population has experienced a major decline of over 80%, during the last decades and the decline is continuing. In the 1996, the species was listed as Vulnerable by the IUCN whereas today -since 2007- the species is classified as Critically Endangered.

Uncontrolled illegal hunting for horns (which are exported for traditional medicine in China) and meat since the break-up of the USSR, selective hunting of young males (with the subsequent distortion of the sex ratio) and poaching in general have resulted in a significant reduction of their numbers. 

Another major threat is the destruction of key habitats and traditional migration routes. 

In some areas, agricultural abandonment is also a problem. Specifically, cattle grazing formerly maintained the grassy species but land abandonment allowed another species (Stippa sp.) to intrude, which the Saiga cannot eat. 

Droughts, severe winters, diseases and natural predation from wolves also put some pressure on the population, however their contribution on the overall decline is minimal.

The population of the S. t. tatarica subspecies was estimated to be around 50,000 in 2003, down from around 1,250,000 in the mid-70s. Most individuals are found in Kazakhstan (decline from about 1,000,000 to 30,000 in 2003). The Mongolian population is estimated at around 1,500 individuals.

Video about the declining populations of Saiga

Conservation Measures
In 1990, "The Saiga Conservation Alliance" was established, a network of researchers and conservationists working to study and protect the now critically endangered Saiga Antelope and its habitat. 

The Mongolian Saiga subspecies has been legally protected since 1930. Two protected areas, Sharga NR (286,900 ha) and Mankhan NR (30,000 ha), were designated in 1993 to protect most of the remaining areas of occurrence.

The organisation "Rewilding Europe" has plans for reintroducing saiga to Europe.

The Kazakhstan government has allocated substantial funding to anti-poaching patrols and aerial surveys, and has passed legislation that strengthens rangers' powers of arrest. The Russian government has issued a order for emergency measures for the species conservation in Kalmykia, and also funds annual population surveys.

A successful captive breeding herd has been established at the Centre for the Study and Conservation of Wild Animals in Kalmykia. Hopefully, the research carried out there will be used to set up similar captive herds in other areas of the species’ natural habitat.

Saiga antelope In Captivity
There are currently two zoos where you can see a Saiga:
  • Moscow Zoo, in Moscow, Russia 
  • Askania-Nova,  in  Kherson Oblast, Ukraine

Saiga antelope intresting facts
- This strange ungulate species proved to be a problem for early taxonomists. Its true phylogenetic position is still debated.  When it was first named in 1766, the animal was placed in the genus Capra along with goats, later it was moved to the genus Antilope, and then to Gazella
Despite their common name, they are thought to be an intermediate species between antelope and sheep.
- The Saiga was protected in former Soviet Union and was the subject of several conservation programmes. This is why the population reached almost one million individuals and this is why the numbers started to greatly decline after its dissolution.

Male Saiga tatarica

References & Further Reading & Useful links
Arylov, Y., Badmaev, V., Bekenov, A., Chimeg, J., Entwistle, A., Grachev, Y. A., Lhagvasuren, B., Lushchekina, A., Mallon, D., Milner-Gulland, E. J. and Ukrainsky, V. 2004. The saiga antelope – teetering on the brink but still cause for hope. Oryx 38(3): 250–251.
- Milner-Gulland., Kholodova., Bekenov., Bukreeva., Grachev., Amgalan., & Lushchekina. (2001). Dramatic declines in saiga antelope populations Oryx, 35 (4), 340-345 DOI: 10.1046/j.1365-3008.2001.00202.x
- Bekenov, A., Grachev, I., & Milner-Gulland, E. (1998). The ecology and management of the Saiga antelope in Kazakhstan Mammal Review, 28 (1), 1-52 DOI: 10.1046/j.1365-2907.1998.281024.x

- Rubin, E., & Michelson, K. (1994). Nursing behavior in dam-reared Russian saiga (Saiga tatarica tatarica) at the San Diego wild animal park Zoo Biology, 13 (4), 309-314 DOI: 10.1002/zoo.1430130404
- Hashiguchi K, Hashimoto K, & Akao M (2001). Morphological character of crystalline components present in saiga horn. Okajimas folia anatomica Japonica, 78 (1), 43-8 PMID: 11552290
- Young, J., Murray, K., Strindberg, S., Buuveibaatar, B., & Berger, J. (2010). Population estimates of Endangered Mongolian saiga Saiga tatarica mongolica: implications for effective monitoring and population recovery Oryx, 44 (02) DOI: 10.1017/S0030605309990858
- Saiga antelope playlist video (youtube)

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