Interesting looking creature isn’t it? Ladies and gentleman, today’s endangered animal is brought to you all the way from the areas of Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Russia and Uzbekistan. This is the saiga or saiga tatarica; if you wanted to get scientific. It’s about the size of a goat but more related to the antelope family. Very interesting face, I know. What makes this even more fascinating is the fact that saiga are ancient creatures. That’s right. They have been around since the Ice Age and roamed the earth with wooly mammoths and saber-toothed tigers. I’m not kidding! Millions of years and this animal has withstood all kinds of time.
Like I said, saiga are about the size of a goat. Males are a little bit larger than females standing at about 2-3 feet tall (70ish cm) at their shoulders and they weigh about 60 to 90 pounds (28-40 kg). They are usually a cinnamon color but in the winter they’re coat gets very thick and turns very pale; almost white. Horns only appear on a saiga if he’s male and the rings at the base of it’s head are sometimes darker than the tip. The nose! We have to talk about the nose of course. A saiga’s nose is similar to that of an elephant’s trunk. It’s a bit of a large flap that hangs over their mouth and is said to filter dust particles in the summer and warm the cold air before it reaches the lungs in the winter.
There is a mouth under that nose. Unlike an elephant, it’s not as flexible or strong and can’t pick up things or anything like that. Saigas are herbivores and eats grasses, herbs and shrubs in the Euraisan steppe (a grassland type of biome). Saiga are herding creatures creating groups up to 40-50 individuals. They live in a type of harem where you have a couple males who defend 30+ females. However, when migration season happens, herds of tens of thousands of saiga will come together and migrate together across vast lands. They have been sighted travelling up to 70 miles in one day! Mating season occurs in mid to late December. Calves are born around May. Usually saiga produce one offspring but there have been cases of twins and even triplets the older the females get. The lifespan of a saiga is usually about 6-10 years.
Saiga are listed as critically endangered on the IUCN Red list. There are only about 50,000 individuals left. That sounds like a lot I know. I thought so too when I first read about them. However, in the early 1990’s there were over 1.2 million saiga and they had a much larger range across Europe and Asia and even Alaska! The early nomadic people treasured the saiga and had sustainable hunting practices for their meat and hides as part of their culture. Now, saiga are poached upon for their horns because they supposedly have medicinal properties in the Chinese market. The problem with this is only the males have horns so it’s seriously hurting the population as the females cannot reproduce without males.
2015 was the hardest year ever for the saiga. A mysterious respiratory illness came about and spread through the saiga population wiping out 200,000 saiga in one go. It was quite devastating and luckily there hasn’t been a repeat in 2016 or 2017. So, as you can see, going from 1.2 million in the early 1990s to only 50,000 individuals in 2018 is a huge problem for a species with such history!
Since 1994 conservationists have been trying to save the saiga. You won’t see one in a zoo because they do not do well in captivity. There are various projects and programs aimed at bringing public awareness and education about the saiga. Organizations like WWF are working with governments in the saiga’s range to help reduce poaching. If you’re interested in reading more about the saiga or support the efforts by donating, click here. Also, check out the video below to see a live baby saiga: