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Saiga Antelope

The saiga antelope (Saiga tatarica) is a relatively northern, Eurasian antelope in the family Bovidae. Historically, the range of the saiga antelope extended from Poland in the west, to the Caucasus Mountains of northwestern Turkey, Georgia, and Azerbaijan, the vicinity of the Caspian Sea in Kazakhstan, and as far east as Mongolia. However, mostly because of overhunting, this species now only occurs in a relatively small part of its former range, mostly in Kazakhstan.

The habitat of the saiga antelope is treeless grasslands, known as steppe, in eastern Eurasia. Much of this natural habitat has been converted to agricultural use, an ecological change that has contributed to the decline in saiga populations.

Saiga are large animals, with a body length of 4-5.6 ft (1.2-1.7 m), and a weight of 79-152 lb (36-69 kg). Their pelage is cinnamon-brown during the summer, and thicker and whitish during the winter. Male saiga antelopes have horns.

The saiga has downward-pointing nostrils, and an inflated nasal cavity that has a convoluted development of the internal, bony structures. The nasal tracts are also lined with fine hairs, and mucous glands. These structures may be useful in warming and moistening inhaled air, or they may somehow be related to the keen sense of smell of the saiga antelope.

Saiga aggregate into large herds during the winter. The herds typically migrate to the south, to spend that difficult season in relatively warm valleys. Males move north first in the spring, followed later by females. The young saiga antelopes are born in the early springtime. Saiga forage on a wide range of grasses and forbs.

Remarkably, it appears that the saiga occurred in North America at the end of the most recent ice age. Along with other large mammals of eastern Eurasia, the saiga likely colonized western North America by traversing A male saiga antelope (Saiga tatarica). © Akira Uchiyama, National Audubon Society Collection/Photo Researchers, Inc. Reproduced with permission. a land bridge from Siberia, which was exposed because sea level was relatively low as a result of so much water being tied up in continental ice sheets. About 11,000 years ago, at a time roughly coincident with the colonization of North America by humans migrating from Siberia, the saiga and many other species of large animals became extinct in North America. This wave of extinctions affected more than 75 species of mammals, including ten species of horses, several species of bison, four species of elephants (including the mastodon and several types of mammoths), the saber-tooth tiger, the American lion, and the saiga antelope. A widely held theory is that these extinctions were caused directly or indirectly by primitive, colonizing humans that acted as effective predators and overhunted these animals.

Up until about the 1920s and 1930s, the populations of saiga in Eurasia were rather small and endangered. The most important reasons for the decline of saiga were losses of habitat and, most importantly, overhunting of these animals for sport, and for the horns of the male animals. The horns are sought for use in traditional Chinese medicine, because of their presumed pharmaceutical qualities. During the 1920s, the government of the then-Soviet Union instituted a strict program of protection of the saiga, and its populations are now relatively large, probably more than one million individuals. Nevertheless, the saiga is classified as a vulnerable species by the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature).

See also Endangered species.

Bill Freedman

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