IAS Gyan

Daily News Analysis


13th December, 2023 Environment


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  • The status of Saiga antelope (Saiga tatarica) in the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List has been changed from critically endangered to near threatened.

Saiga Antelope

  • The Saiga antelope (Saiga tatarica and S. borealis mongolica) is a large migratory herbivore of Central Asia found in Kazakhstan, Mongolia, the Russian Federation, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. The saiga generally inhabits open dry steppe grasslands and semi-arid deserts. This antelope has an extremely unusual appearance with an over-sized and flexible nose, the internal structure of which acts like a filter. During the summer it filters out a dust kicked up by the herd and during the winter warms up the freezing air before it is taken into the lungs. In the spring large herds of female saiga gather and migrate to the breeding areas. In the summer the herds break into the smaller groups and from the autumn they gather again to move to the winter grounds. The length of the journeys varies depending on the weather and forage conditions.  However, it may reach up to 1,000 km a year. Their migration route typically follows a north-south direction. However, it also has a nomadic pattern.
  • The saiga population in the 1990s underwent a catastrophic fall (~95%) in numbers decreasing from more than 1.5 million to 50,000 individuals across its range. Such a drastic decline happened because of poaching. As saiga horns are highly valued in traditional Chinese medicine the illegal trade became more widespread due to the hard economic conditions and impoverishment of the local human population and weaker control after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
  • There are currently five subpopulations of saiga. The largest population inhabits central Kazakhstan (Betpak Dala), the second largest group is found in the Urals in Kazakhstan and Russian Federation, others belong to Kalmykia in the Russian Federation and the Ustyurt Plateau region in southern Kazakhstan and north-western Uzbekistan.
  • The population of Mongolian saiga occurs in the west of the country. The current population numbers total about 200,000 saigas in all the subpopulations combined. Poaching persists as a key threat, as demand for saiga horns remains high and they are illegally sold on the black market.
  • A rise of mass mortality probably due to diseases (occurring annually from 2010) poses yet another threat. Lastly, the development of extractive industries and related infrastructure development causes fragmentation and degradation of saiga habitats. A prominent feature of the saiga is the pair of closely spaced, bloated nostrils directed downward.
  • Other facial features include the dark markings on the cheeks and the nose and the long ears.
  • During summer migrations, a saiga's nose helps filter out dust kicked up by the herd and cools the animal's blood. In the winter, it heats up the frigid air before it is taken to the lungs.
  • Only males possess horns.
  • Saigas form very large herds that graze in semideserts, steppes, grasslands, and possibly open woodlands, eating several species of plants, including some that are poisonous to other animals.
  • They can cover long distances and swim across rivers, but they avoid steep or rugged areas.
  • Poaching on an industrial scale has contributed significantly to the saiga’s dramatic decline, but it is by no means the only factor.
  • Habitat loss and fragmentation, catastrophic disease outbreaks and increasingly restricted access to historical migration routes have also taken a heavy toll.