Saiga/mongolian Saiga
(Saiga tatarica)
The saiga is a very distinctive looking antelope, with a large, proboscis-like nose which hangs down over its mouth. Renowned for its high reproductive potential, the species was thought to be able to withstand even relatively high levels of hunting for its horns - less than 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 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.
Urgent Conservation Actions
Strengthening of anti-poaching efforts and law enforcement, habitat restoration throughout the species' range, and the establishment of temporary protected areas during the rut and birth periods.
Russia, Kazakhstan and western Mongolia. Some Kazakhstan herds migrate to Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan during the winter.
Saiga can run up to 80 km/h. The Mongolian subspecies is smaller than the Russian saiga, with shorter, straighter horns. The animals are also behaviourally distinct, in that they do not migrate.
Associated Blog Posts
1st Feb 11
EDGE Fellow Bayarbaatar Buuveibaatar, known as Buuvei has sent in his latest update on the progress of his saiga research in Mongolia. The saiga (Saiga tat...  Read

3rd Jun 10
The saiga (Saiga tatarica) is EDGE mammal conservation priority number 62, and is today's IUCN Species of the Day. This extraordinary-looking antelope is ...  Read

20th Apr 10
This year, Mongolia is affected by a “dzud”, a natural disaster consisting of a summer drought, followed by heavy snowfall with extreme cold temperatures...  Read

17th Jul 09
EDGE supports Mongolian conservationist Buuvei through the EDGE Fellows programme to research threats to saiga. Here is an account of his most recent fieldwo...  Read

1st Jun 09
EDGE Fellow Buuvei is investigating how much predation from dogs threatens Mongolian saiga antelopes. Here he tells us about efforts to combat one of the oth...  Read

4th Feb 09
While we have all been enjoying the unusual amounts of snow in the UK, one of our EDGE Fellows, Buuvei, has been braving much more severe winter conditions t...  Read

9th Sep 08
Buuvei, one of our Mongolian EDGE Fellows spent most of August in the field studying the effect of domestic dogs on saiga antelope. He sent us the following ...  Read

24th Jul 08
Buuvei is an EDGE Fellow researching the effect of domestic dogs on Mongolian saiga calf mortality - he sent us this update on his work: Mongolian saiga (...  Read

27th Jun 08
I am happy to welcome our newest EDGE Fellow, Buuvei, who will be researching the saiga antelope in Mongolia. Buuvei sent the following information to introd...  Read

Evolutionary Distinctiveness
Order: Artiodactyla
Family: Bovidae
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). This subfamily is thought to have diverged from the other bovid subfamilies during the early Miocene, probably as a result of the separation of Africa and Eurasia. Major radiations took place within each bovine tribe during the mid Miocene (15.3-12 million years ago), and again at the end of the Miocene (5.5 million years ago). The saiga lineage diverged during this final major radiation. The saiga is the only surviving representative of its genus. The closely related Saiga borealis became extinct during the Pleistocene (within the last 2 million years).
Head and body length: 1,000-1,400 mm
Shoulder height: 600-800 mm
Tail length: 60-120 mm
Weight: 26-69 kg
The saiga’s most distinctive feature is its large, proboscis-like nose. 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. The fur is woolly, and there is a long fringe of hairs that extends from the chin to the chest. 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. Adult males posses a pair of heavily ridged amber coloured horns, which are 203-255 mm in length.
Saiga are active during the day, and spend much of their time grazing on various species of grass, herbs and shrubs. They have no fixed home range and can travel several dozen kilometres each day. The nominate subspecies undertakes extensive seasonal migrations, moving up to 1,000 km northwards to the steppe areas at the start of the summer to take advantage of the rich grazing, and 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 mating season extends from December to January. During this time adult males gather groups of around 5-15 females in harems which they defend aggressively from other males. The males fight fiercely and eat very little during the rut, and up to ninety per cent may perish due to exhaustion. The saigas begin to migrate north in large groups 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 not fully weaned until 4 months. 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, although few animals in a population are likely to survive more than 3.5 years.
The species inhabits open dry steppe grasslands and semi-arid deserts. It is found mainly in flat, open areas with low-growing vegetation, where animals can run quickly to escape predators. It generally avoids areas of broken terrain and dense vegetation.
The nominate subspecies is found in one location in Russia (steppes of the North-West Precaspian region) and three areas in Kazakhstan (the Ural, Ustiurt and Betpak-dala populations). A proportion of the Ustiurt population migrates south to Uzbekistan and occasionally Turkmenistan in winter. It is extinct in China and southwestern Mongolia. The Mongolian subspecies is found only in western Mongolia.
Population Estimate
The population of the nominate subspecies was estimated to be around 50,000 in 2003, down from around 1,250,000 in the mid-1970s. Most are found in Kazakhstan (decline from about 1,000,000 to 30,000 in 2003). The Mongolian population is estimated at around 1,500.
Population Trend
The population has undergone a catastrophic decline, with numbers plummeting from more than one million in 1991 to about 30,000 in 2003.
Overall the species is classified as Critically Endangered (CR A2a) on the 2006 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. The nominate subspecies is listed as Critically Endangered (CR A2ad) and the Mongolian subspecies is listed as Endangered (EN A2ad; C1+2a(ii)) .
Saiga have long been hunted for their horns, skin and meat. However, during Soviet times the species was subject to an intensive management programme, and populations remained relatively stable. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990, legal 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 cannot find a mate. This excaberated the severe population crash caused by poaching, and immediate conservation action is required to ensure wild populations do not become extinct within a few years. 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.
Conservation Underway
The species is protected nationally in all its range states, and is listed on Appendix II of CITES. The nominate subspecies is listed on Appendix II of the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS or the Bonn Convention). However, enforcement is poor in most areas, and poaching remains a major threat. There has been a concerted effort to save the species in recent years, with all range states demonstrating a commitment to saiga conservation. A Memorandum of Understanding and action plan for saiga conservation was drawn up by the Convention on Migratory Species in 2002, and has now been ratified by all the range states; this came into force in September 2006. The Kazakhstan government has provided substantial funding for anti-poaching patrols and aeriel surveys, and has passed legislation strengthening rangers' powers of arrest, while the Russian government has issued a decree for emergency measures for saiga conservation in Kalmykia, and is funding annual population surveys. These measures are supported by international conservation projects, such as a three-year project being carried out by Imperial College, London, in Kalmykia (Russia) and Ustiurt (Kazakhstan). This project aims to strengthen institutions committed to saiga conservation, particularly the Chernye Zemli Biosphere Reserve, which holds a substantial proportion of the European saiga population. The project also focuses on reproductive factors and fecundity, population monitoring, and education and public awareness programmes. Other conservation projects are being carried out by Flora and Fauna International (FFI) on initiatives to enhance rural livelihoods in Ustiurt, and by WWF to address saiga protection in Kazakhstan. The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and WWF-Mongolia currently have conservation projects underway for the Mongolian subspecies. A successful captive breeding herd has been established at the Centre for the Study and Conservation of Wild Animals in Kalmykia. Research into saiga husbandry carried out at this centre can potentially be used to set up similar captive herds in other areas of the species’ range. Outside of the saiga's range, the Chinese authorities have implemented measures to strengthen internal controls for stocks of legal saiga horn, and have introduced tougher enforcement on illegal imports of horns.

This project supports in-country EDGE Fellows to help conserve relevant EDGE species

This project trains young scientists while putting in place a sustaunable monitoring programme for the saiga antelope.

This project targets ex-poachers to become monitors, tour guides and champions for saigas in their communities.

This project aims to improve public awareness of the issues surrounding saiga conservation

With the support of the Wildlife Conservation Network, the SCA has initiated a small grants competition.

Conservation Proposed
Although extensive conservation programmes are underway, further measures are needed if the species is to survive. Since the animals undertake seasonal migrations from summer pastures in steppe grassland to winter pastures in desert areas, transboundary cooperation and exchange of information is essential. International cooperation is required, with range states working together with regional and national NGOs and local communities to ensure the saiga has a future. Strengthening of anti-poaching efforts and law enforcement, and improvements in livelihhods of rural people are the main conservation measures required. Other recommended conservation measures include the establishment and improvement of protected areas, particularly during the rut and birth periods. A long-term monitoring programme should be established to monitor the status of the population. It is important to continue work with local communities to develop alternative livelihood opportunities in order to decrease poverty and unsustainable use of resources. The Mongolian subspecies is thought to be particularly at risk from extinction due to its small size and restricted range. Thus, in addition to the above conservation initiatives, a captive breeding centre should be established in Mongolia.
Associated EDGE Community members

The SCA is a network of conservationists working together for saiga conservation.

Bayarbaatar Buuveibaatar, known as Buuvei, studies Saiga antelope (Saiga tatarica) in the Mongolian Gobi desert.

Saiga News (six-monthly e-bulletin)
Provides a six-language forum which provides a platform for the exchange of ideas and information about saiga conservation and ecology

Saiga Conservation Alliance
This collaborative effort between educators and researchers aims to increase the conservation awareness of the saiga antelope and highlight its importance in the steppe ecosystem.

Saiga Information Service
Within the framework of the Biodiversity Conservation Center, this site aims to increase awareness of the saiga antelope, providing information on saiga antelope natural history and issues affecting its conservation.
ARKive. (Jan 2006).

Arylov, Y., Badmaev, V., Bekenov, A., Chimeg, J., Entwistle, A., Grachev, Y. A., Lhagvasuren, B., Lushchekina, A., Mallon, D., Milner-Gulland, E. J. and Ukrainsky, V. 2004. The saiga antelope – teetering on the brink but still cause for hope. Oryx 38(3): 250–251.

Convention on Migratory Species (CMS)

Hassanin, A. and Douzery, E. J. P. 1999. The Tribal Radiation of the Family Bovidae (Artiodactyla) and the Evolution of the Mitochondrial Cytochrome b Gene. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 13(2): 227-243.

Kholodova, M. V., Milner-Gulland, E. J., Easton, A. J., Amgalan, L., Arylov, Iu.A, Bekenov, A., Grachev, Iu.A., Lushchekina, A. A. and Ryder, O. 2006. Mitochondrial DNA variation and population structure of the Critically Endangered saiga antelope Saiga tatarica. Oryx 40(1): 103-107.

Lushchekina, A. M. 2004. The saiga protection project in Kalymkia. ZGAP Mitteilungen 20: 6-7.

Lushchekina, A. M., Neronov, V. M., Badmaev, V. S. and Khludnev, A. V. 2005. Territorial organization of nature protection and perspective of saiga survival within its habitat on the right bank of the Volga River. Povolzhskii Ekologicheskii Zhurnal 1:80-85.

Mallon, D.P. 2003. Saiga tatarica. In: IUCN 2006. 2006 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Downloaded on 09 August 2006.

Nowak, R.M. 1999. Walker's Mammals of the World. 6th ed. The Johns Hopkins University Press. Baltimore and London.

Distribution map based on data provided by the IUCN Global Mammal Assessment.

if you can provide new information to update this species account or to correct any errors, please email us at info@edgeofexistence.org

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