The Saiga, Eurasian antelope threatened with extinction

Originally fromEurasia, the Saiga Antelope is easily recognized by its prominent snout that resembles a proboscis. Grazing theextinction, its population has declined dramatically as a result of intensive hunting, diseases and the decline of its habitat. Encounter with a herbivorous mammal whose migrations are among the most impressive in the world.

Saiga antelope identity card

Only antelope native toEurasia, the saiga (Saiga tatarica tatarica) belongs to the order of artiodactyla and the bovidae family. The animal is sometimes called simply saiga, which means antelope in Russian. It exists 2 subspecies :

  • Saiga tatarica tatarica (or Russian saiga), which includes the majority of the world’s population;
  • Saiga tatarica mongolica (or Mongolian saiga), endemic of the eponymous country.

The big useful nose of the saiga antelope

Adapted to life in the desert, the Saiga antelope has a large muzzle cavernous with nostrils facing downwards which filter the dust coming from the ground and prevent it from reaching the lungs. In winter, his nasal apparatus allows him to warm up the air breathed. The mammal’s short coat sports a color red blond honey in summer and the underside is lighter. In the cold season, the coat thickens and takes on a hue pale beige, almost white on the belly. The Eurasian ungulate is between 1 and 1.50 m long, 60 to 80 cm high and weighs between 21 and 51 kg. There is a sexual dimorphism important: the male is larger and can weigh twice the female; he is also the only one to wear high horns twisted.

Saiga antelope: habitat in decline

The range of the Saiga antelope has continued to decline for millennia, the species was indeed already present in Western Europe during the Pleistocene (from – 2.6 million years to – 11,000 years). Its population, which died out in China in the sixties, is now confined to the wide open spaces of the dry steppes and semi-arid deserts ofCentral Asia, mainly in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Russia.

The astonishing migrations of the Saiga antelope

The mammal ruminant feeds on halophilic grasses (which grow in a very salty environment), shrub lichens and grasses. In winter, the hostile climate freezes the vegetation and forces the antelope to join the South of their range. This social animal and gregarious then forms herds of tens of thousands of individuals to migrate to regions offering pastures. During these spectacular migratory movements, vital for their survival, ungulates travel hundreds of kilometers (about 1000 kilometers round trip each year). In summer, the herbivorous mammal goes back to the North where the plains have turned green.

Saiga antelope, an athlete

By nature fearful, Saiga antelopes rely on group effect to deter any enemy from approaching. Nevertheless, facing a danger, they can panic to the point of running away at an average speed of 75 km / h and accelerating to 100 km / h. This velocity, coupled with a good endurance (40 km / h for several minutes), usually allow a specimen adult to escape his predators. In contrast, young people and individuals weak (ages, injured) constitute a prey of choice for the grey Wolf.

The good reproduction rate of the saiga

Within this species polygamous, heavy fighting occurs during the rut, breaking up the herds into small herds. Rivals compete for a harem from 10 to 30 individuals including several females and young with which the male dominant lives all summer. The breeding season takes place from the end of November to the end of December. After one gestation of about 140 days, future mothers gather in the plain and give birth in same time, usually the first week of May. An adult female gives birth to 2 small on average, sometimes triplets for an older female and 1 only small for a young antelope. Newborns begin to eat food solid after 4-8 days, but continue to breastfeed until 4 months of age. Females reach their sexual maturity around 8 months and males are able to reproduce around 20 months.

Critically endangered Saiga antelope

In the nineties, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) already classified the Saiga antelope as “critically endangered. extinction”Because its population gathered 50,000 individuals against nearly 2 million in the 1950s. From causes The main reasons for this sharp decline are:

  • The intensive hunting and the poaching for meat (the situation following the breakup of the USSR and the impoverishment of rural populations in search of food resources). The male was also killed for his horns sold on parallel markets of the traditional medicine Chinese. The phenomenon has completely unbalanced the male / female ratio, leading to a collapse in the birth rate;
  • The degradation of its habitat natural linked to agricultural extension. Saiga antelope now faces increased competition from livestock domesticated in pastures;
  • The contagious epidemics which occasionally cause the disappearance of entire herds. In 2015, stimulated by an unusually hot and humid climate, a bacterium (pasteurellosis) had wiped out some 200,000 animals, halving the mammal’s population.

Namely that measures of conservation and of struggle against poaching have borne fruit in Kazakhstan where the population of Saiga antelopes has more than double since 2019. Reassuring news for this endangered species. Life expectancy of the Saiga antelope is 12 years old in the wild and 15 years old in captivity.