Sunday, February 14, 2010

Saiga of the Ustyurt Plateau

Photo: Baby Saiga in the snow

The Usturt plateau of Western Uzbekistan and north western Kazakhstan is one of the largest remaining habitats of the Saiga antelope, both the Karakalpak and Kazakh name it the Ak Kuiruk (meaning white tail). It lives on the steeps and semi desert areas of the Eurasian continent and has adapted to survive in the long hot dry summers and cold cold winters.

Traditionally Saiga roam in troops which can number from the hundreds to the tens of thousands. These troops move along with their heads bowed down close to the earth, their hooves raising gigantic clouds of dust. The Saiga has a strange looking nose resembling a proboscis, a result of prolonged evolution which acts as a respirator, so they do not suffocate. On the inside the nose is covered with numerous folds retaining dust. In winter it warms up the frosty air and facilitates breathing.

Saiga antelopes are ideally suited to life on the steppe. The yellowish-chestnut colour of their fleece similar to that of the ground permits the animals to hide themselves from their predators by merging into the environment. New born calves can remain still for a very long time. It is hard to notice a small saiga calf lying motionless on the ground a few metres away. However the young saiga does not stay still for long on the third day after birth it is ready to start on its long journey with its mother.

The saigas breeding season starts in December. During that period of time the bucks fight for the does. Winners collect harems numbering from 5 to 50 does and watch them closely, not permitting them to leave the harem and driving away rivals. They lead a nomadic life migrating many hundred of kilometres each season in search of better pastures. They mostly feed on wormwood and saltwort unfit for other animals, thus maintaining the natural vegetation balance.

Today one of the biggest remaining populations of saiga antelopes is found in the Usturt Plateau of Karakalpakstan where they winter before moving into the Kazakh part of the plateau in search of summer pastures.

Watching the winter migration on the Ustyurt is an impressive sight. On an early frosty morning with the temperature -20 Degrees below Celsius a huge greyish-yellow mass of several thousand Saiga emerge on the horizon. Driven by the piercing wind the animals walk along the snowy plane at a measured pace without ever halting even for a second so as to keep themselves warm.

In ancient times saiga antelopes play an important role in local legends of the people of the plateau. One legend relates about a Shepard whose livestock have all died during a harsh winter. He was dying of hunger when the Almighty sent a Saiga to him saying “I will help save you and your family, provide you with food, show you the best pastures and help you find water and it will always be this way. But remember you must never kill us profit, because we are brothers".

You may only hunt us for the sake of survival.” For centuries people followed the behest. They hunted the saiga without doing any harm to their population. The horns of the bucks used as amulets against disease and evil forces.

As little as a hundred years ago saiga antelopes were considered one of the most numerous hoofed animals in Asia. The numbers of their heard reached millions, and their troops covered Eurasia. It however took man only a few decades to destroy the herds; until only a thousand remained, in small pockets isolated in the remote steeps of Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Mongolia.

The cause of the saigas misfortune is their beautiful lyre shaped antlers which are used in traditional Chinese medicine. At the beginning of the 20th century thousands of pairs of antlers where for sale at the markets in Bukhara, Khiva and Tashkent. A pair of antlers costing as much as a camel.

However, only bucks have antlers and they form a minority of the population. When most of the bucks were exterminated, the population lost its natural reproduction ability. Only urgent measures in the early Soviet Period helped them survive at the time. By the 1980s the total population once again reached one million heads and the animals returned to their traditional habitat, and new troops were even able to get acclimatised to new habitats.

The past decades since the end of the Soviet Union have once again proved to be very difficult for these beautiful creatures, the insidious Chinese “medicinal” trade is once again driving the Saiga antelope towards extinction. Just in the last decade alone heard’s in Uzbekistan have reduced by some 90%.

If this immoral trade is not stopped soon there will be little chance of retaining these wondrous creatures for the generations to come.

Source: Wikipedia & Uzbekistan Airlines Magazine - Summer 2009

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