In the early 1990’s, over one million Saiga antelopes (Saiga tatarica) roamed the vast Eurasian steppe but today, there are estimated to be fewer than 50,000 individuals restricted to a small area of Russia and Kazakhstan. That means that in the last 25 years, there has been a 95% decrease in the population of this species which makes the Saiga antelope a ‘critically endangered’ species by the IUCN Red List.
The most prominent and unusual feature of this antelope is the large humped nose with a pair of closely spaced nostrils. The nose of the Saiga antelope has uniquely evolved to be flexible and inflatable which acts as both a filter and heating tool. During the bitterly cold winters, their nose helps to warm the surrounding air which it inhales in order to retain body heat. Furthermore, the Saiga antelope annually migrates southwards in winter to seek better feeding grounds and their nose helps to filter the dusty air whilst they travel across the arid central Asian grasslands. The migrating herds include tens of thousands of individuals which makes it an utterly captivating spectacle.
Throughout summer, their fur coat is a creamy cinnamon colour but this changes to a thick, light grey coat during winter. Only the males have horns (which can grow up to 38 centimetres in the Russian subspecies). In their dry steppe and grassland habitats they feed on grasses, lichens and shrubs.
The Saiga antelope almost looks like some sort of fictional star wars character but they are real and deserve our protection. Sadly, they face many threats to their survival, especially: hunting, habitat loss and climate change. The Saiga antelope’s horns, skin and meat have great value commercially so they have been hunted in their thousands. The break up of the USSR resulted in their uncontrolled hunting and their horns have been targeted for use in traditional Chinese medicines. Moreover, the value of theirs horns are equivalent to the rhinoceros horn so after rhinoceros hunting was internationally prohibited, people were encouraged to hunt the Saiga antelope instead. Inevitably, this had a detrimental effect on their population and they seem to have been neglected by society. This antelope is unknown by many and I want to try and increase our awareness of this exceptionally unique and special creature to help them regain their former population. Much of their habitat has also been displaced by agricultural land and the Saiga antelope have also had difficulty competing with other species for grazing lands. Climate change has also potentially played a part in the massacre of the Saiga antelope. An increase in severe winters and dire droughts have made it difficult for this antelope to recover.
The story of the Saiga antelope is a tragic tale. When I see their uniqueness and beauty I struggle to believe how we let this species fall dramatically without helping. As you may be able to tell, I am very passionate about this species and I want to help to counteract humankind’s past actions. By raising the public awareness of this species and encouraging donations to conservation organisations -such as the WWF – hopefully, we can help build up their population once again.