Monday, March 29, 2010
The saiga antelope is one of the world's strangest-looking mammals. Its bulbous, tubular nose filters out dust and warms cold air before it reaches the animal's windpipe.
Once renowned for its high reproductive potential, the species was thought to be able to withstand even relatively high levels of hunting for its horns - 20 years ago, the total saiga population stood at more than one million, and appeared relatively stable. However, intensified poaching pressures during the 1990s, coupled with a breakdown of law enforcement following the collapse of the Soviet Union, caused their numbers to plummet to fewer than 50,000 in just one decade – one of the most sudden and dramatic population crashes of a large mammal ever seen.
The saiga antelope (Saiga tatarica) originally inhabited a vast area of the Eurasian steppe zone from the foothils of the Carpathians and Caucasus into Dzungaria and Mongolia, today however they are found only in a few areas in Kalmykia (Russia), Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Western Mongolia.
Kingdom: Animalia;Phylum: Chordata;Class: Mammalia;Order: Artiodactyla;Family: Bovidae;Subfamily: Antilopinae; Genus: Saiga;Species: S. tatarica. Binomial name: Saiga tatarica (Linnaeus, 1766) also known as: Sagak, Saiga, Mongolian Saiga
The family Bovidae (antelopes, cattle, bison, buffalo, goats and sheep) contains 50 Recent genera and 143 species. Nine subfamilies are recognised. The saiga antelope belongs to the subfamily Antilopinae (gazelles, saiga, springbok, steenbok, dik-dik, and oribi).
The saiga’s most distinctive feature is its large, proboscis-like nose that hangs down over the mouth. The nose has a unique internal structure: the bones are greatly developed and convoluted, and the long nostrils contain numerous hairs, glands and mucous tracts. These structures are thought to be adaptations for warming and moistening inhaled air during the winter, filtering out airborne dust during the dry summer migrations, and acting as counter-current heat exchange mechanisms.
In the summer the coat is relatively sparse, and is a cinnamon-buff colour above and white below, with a white patch on the rump. During the winter the coat becomes much longer and thicker and is uniformly white. In winter it is around seventy percent thicker with a distinctive its wooly coat - a long fringe of hairs that extends from the chin to the chest. The underbelly is light in colour throughout the year, and there is a small mane on the underside of the neck. Mature males have almost vertical horns; these are semi translucent and are ringed in the bottom sections.
The Saiga typically stands 0.6-0.8 meters at the shoulder and weighs between 36 and 63 kg. Their lifespan ranges from 6 to 10 years. Males are bigger than females and posses a pair of heavily ridged amber coloured horns, which are 203-255 mm in length. These horns sadly are valued in Chinese traditional medicine and it is for this reason that the Saiga are now so endangered today.
Saigas typically inhabit open dry steppe and semi desert grasslands of Central Asia and Pre-Caspian region. They prefer open areas free from dense vegetation where they run quickly to avoid predators such as wolves and humans.
They are found mainly in flat, open areas with low-growing vegetation, where animals can run quickly to escape predators. They can move at speeds up to to 80 miles per hour over short distances to avoid predators such as wolves and humans. Saigas typically form very large herds that graze in semi-desert steppes eating several species of plants, including some that are poisonous to other animals. They can cover considerable distances and swim across rivers, but they avoid steep or rugged areas, generally stay away from broken terrain and dense vegetation.
The Saiga are nomadic animals and undertake seasonal migrations from summer pastures in steppe grassland to winter pastures in desert areas. They are active during the day grazing on a number of different grasses, herbs and shrubs.
The Saiga undertakes extensive seasonal migrations, moving up several dozen kilometres in a day. They can go as far as 1,000 km northwards into the steppe at the start of the summer to take advantage of the rich grazing, returning to the southern desert areas in the autumn. The animals remain in desert areas during the winter, as the snow is not so thick and vegetation is relatively plentiful.
The unusual swollen nose is thought to filter out airborne dust during the dry summer migrations and to enable cold winter air to be warmed before it reaches the lungs.
Surviving males begin to migrate north at at the beginning of April. The females stop en route, gathering in larger numbers to find a suitable place to give birth. The majority of females in the herd give birth to one or, more usually two, young within the space of a single week, overwhelming predators with the sheer number of offspring. Within a few days of birth the calves are able to travel, and the females break into smaller herds which head northwards to the summer feeding grounds. Here they join the males, and form small groups of around 30-40 animals. Newborns begin to graze at 4-8 days, but are not fully weaned until about 4 months. The herd reforms again for the journey south in the following autumn.
Females usually attain sexual maturity at less than a year old, and continue to grow until they are 20 months old. Males can mate at 19-20 months and grow until they reach 24 months. The fact that females mature so early and frequently bear twins enables saigas to expand their populations quickly when conditions permit - in years with a favourable climate the population can increase by up to 60% in a single year. The maximum lifespan of this species in the wild is thought to be 10-12 years, however due to poaching few males in a population are currently likely to survive more than a few years.
During the Ice Age the Saiga ranged from the British Isles through Central Asia and the Bering Strait into Alaska and the Yukon. At the beginning of the 18th century it was still distributed from the shores of the Black Sea, the Carpathian foothills and the northern edge of the Caucasus into Dzungaria and Mongolia.
After a rapid decline they were nearly completely exterminated in the 1920s, but they were able to recover and by 1950 there were again two million of them in the steppes of the USSR. Today the populations have again shrunk enormously and the saiga is classified as critically endangered by the IUCN. There were an estimated total number of 50,000 Saiga's in 2003.
Currently, there are three populations of the subspecies S. t. tatarica in Kazakhstan - the Ural, Ust’-Urt and Betpakdala, and one population in the Pre-Caspian region of Russia (Kalmykia). A proportion of the Ustyurt population migrates south to Uzbekistan and occasionally Turkmenistan in winter.
Each of these populations is distinct and there is little intermingling of the populations. Until the early 1960s there was also a population of Saiga tatarica in China. Two populations of the Mongolian saiga (S. t. mongolica) are found in two isolated pockets of northwestern Mongolia.
500 Tenge Coin Kazakhstan
The population of Saiga has declined dramatically from 1,250,000 in the mid-1970s to around 40,000 in 2009. Around 30,000 found in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. The Mongolian population is estimated at only around 1,500. There has been a slight increase in numbers in all its ranges over the last decade, except that of the Ustyurt where due to poaching the species continues to decline.
The saiga was placed on a list of critically endangered species by the IUCN in 2002. Classified as Critically Endangered (CR) on the IUCN Red List, and listed on Appendix II of CITES. It is also listed on Appendix II of the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species (CMS or Bonn Convention). Subspecies: Mongolian saiga (Saiga tatarica mongolica) classified as Endangered (EN) and the Russian saiga (S. t. tatarica) is Critically Endangered (CR) on the IUCN Red List.
All the Saiga populations have suffered from habitat degradation, poaching and disturbance. Droughts or severe winters, diseases and predation pressure from wolves have also acted as threats to Saiga populations, although these are not the main causes of the decline.
The main reason for the decline has been due to hunting. Saiga have long been hunted for their horns, skin and meat. In the former Soviet Union were the subject of to an intensive management; conservation programmes, and populations remained relatively stable. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990, effective controls ended and illegal poaching intensified. Males in particular were targeted for their horns, which were seen as an alternative to rhino horn in traditional oriental medicine.
The heavy hunting on male Saigas has led to severely skewed sex ratios, and problems of reproductive failure through females being unable to breed because they can not find a mate. This has excaberated the severe population crash caused by poaching. Immediate conservation action is required to ensure wild populations do not become extinct within a few years.
Despite attempts to stop it, illegal poaching is still rife, as the male saiga's horns are highly valued in traditional Chinese medicine as cures for illnesses such as strokes and are currently fetching $100 or more a kilogram. Although poaching is the main cause of the species’ decline, it is also at risk in some areas from habitat loss and degradation caused by human encroachment into its habitat, and from the construction of roads and pipelines and the conversion of land to agriculture uses. In particular the cnumbers of domesticated livestock in their traditional range (particularly sheep) has increased enormously and as a result the quality of their pastures has deteriorated.
A young Saiga Antelope
International trade in the Saiga antelope, and derivatives such as horn, is banned by its listing on Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Hunting is banned throughout the Saiga’s range. Further research into saiga reproductive behaviour is urgently needed to assess the impact of poaching and this may be used to produce an effective conservation action plan.
In order to conserve this species, protected areas for lambing and rutting should be established where Saiga populations are present. Given that poaching for domestic consumption is now a major threat, strengthening of anti-poaching law enforcement is crucial. It is considered important to fund national conservation action and improve the international trade control. China and other east Asian countries as well as the host countries must act responsibly and urgently supress the illegal trade in Saiga horn.