23 January 2009

Antelope or Sheep?

Saiga Antelope (Saiga tatarica), Critically Endangered

Saiga antelope have an extremely distinctive appearance with an enlarged nose that hangs down over the mouth like a mini-elephant trunk. Mature males have almost vertical orange-ish translucent horns that are ringed at the bottom. Despite their common name they are thought to be intermediates between antelope and sheep. Their coats are sparse and cinnamon-buff in the summer but become white and around 70 percent thicker in winter.

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 (a European population). Some herds from one of the populations within Kazakhstan migrate to Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan during the 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) inhabit the northwest of Mongolia. Saiga within the former Soviet Union were the subject of concerted conservation programmes. The population at one point reached almost one million individuals.

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 (up to 80 miles per hour) to avoid predators such as wolves and humans.

Management of the species has now broken down however and illegal poaching is rife. Saiga horns are highly valued in traditional Chinese medicine as cures for illnesses such as strokes. Only the males of the species bear horns and poaching thus produces a population where there are far more females than males. The average life span of saiga is only around three to four years and if females do not mate every year the species can rapidly decline. They are on the CITES list and hunting is banned throughout the Saiga's range.

Maps and more information on the Saiga at EDGE - here.

Saiga also usually have one or (more commonly) two offspring at a go. I find Saiga terribly cute - adult or babies... they are - aren't they?!


Greg said...

Awesome article! To be quite honest, I used to think the Saiga Antelope was kind of ugly, based on photos I had seen at EDGE and other places, but this one image has completely changed my view. I also wasn't aware that they could run so fast. Thanks for the excellent post :)

Simon said...

They are curious looking animals, but very interesting. They featured in a Year of Biodiversity roundup on the BBC World Service recently.