What is a Saiga?

Photo by Eugeny Polonsky

A Symbol of the Steppe

The saiga’s long, wobbly noses and large expressive eyes make one think of muppets or Dr. Seuss characters. These adorable antelopes are much tougher than they look, having roamed the earth since the ice age and outliving mammoths and saber toothed tigers! Once migrating across arid plains in eastern Europe, Asia and Alaska, they are now only found in smaller ranges in Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Russia, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. The saiga is a symbol of the steppe for the nomadic people it shares its habitat with, and has been an important source of food and inspiration for centuries.

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Height

Roughly the size of a goat, measuring about 70cm / 2’3″ tall at the shoulders. Males are taller than females.

Appearance

In summer, the saiga’s coat is a rich chestnut colour, and its belly and legs are pale. In winter, it has a thick, warm pale coat. Only the males have horns.

Habitat

Eurasian steppe, a dry, treeless landscape with warm summers and cold winters.

Diet

Grasses, herbs and shrubs.

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Predators and Defenses

Wolves, foxes and eagles are predators, typically preying on calves. Their surprisingly fast legs are their best defense; saigas can run up to 80 kph / 50 mph!

Weight

Males weigh about 41kg and females weigh about 28kg.

Notable Noses

Their large noses filter out dust kicked up by the herd in the warm summers and warms the icy air before it reaches their lungs in the winters.

Mating

Males defends a harem of up to 30 females. Mating occurs in early to mid-December.

Reproduction

Gestation is 4.5 – 5 months, with calves usually born over a one-week period in early May. First-year females typically have one calf, while older females have twins or, occasionally, triplets!

Status

Listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List due to decline from a million in early 1990s to just six per cent of that by 2005.

Where are Saiga Now?

Saiga once had a much larger range. Today, saiga are only found in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Russia and Mongolia. All of the saiga’s range states were part of the Soviet Union or China for most of the last century. Saiga went extinct in China in the 1960s.

This map from the CMS outlines where saigas can be found today

Can I see Saiga in Zoos?

Saiga are not easily kept in captivity, and do not thrive in the weather where most American and European zoos are located, so unless you travel to one of the regions where saiga live in the wild, you’re not likely to be able to meet one of these amazing animals.

A Population in Crisis

Saiga hold a sad record in the animal world – they are one of the fastest declining mammal species on our planet today! Since the early 1990s over 95% of the saiga population has disappeared. There is considerable international concern, and saiga have been listed as Critically Endangered by IUCN, the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

In May and early June of 2015, over 200,000 saiga in central Kazakhstan died suddenly due to a respiratory illness. Many young calves and their mothers were taken by the disease. Encouragingly, the disease did not repeat in 2016, and the herd is seeing some small recovery in numbers. Fortunately the two other populations in Kazakhstan and those in Mongolia and Russia were not affected.

Get the full story! Visit our page on the 2015 die-off and efforts to help the saiga recover:

Poaching is another main cause of saiga population decline. The local nomadic people have for many generations sustainably used saiga meat and hide as part of their diet and culture, but nowadays saiga are primarily hunted for their translucent amber horn, which is sold for Chinese Traditional Medicine.

The fate of the saiga has been closely tied to the economic downfall of the USSR. The breakdown of the Soviet Union in 1991 resulted in the collapse of rural economies, unemployment and poverty. Saiga poaching provided an (illegal) alternative source of income and food. The border with China reopened in the late 1980s and demand for horn was high.

Only saiga males bear the precious horn, and as a result poachers aim to kill males. The number of adult males dropped dramatically. During the rut there were not enough males to mate with all the females, which led to a reproductive collapse. Recently however, some years have shown population growth and recovery, providing hope for the future.

Saiga Population Over Time

  • 1981 – 1,250,000 83%
  • 1983 – 1,050,000 70%
  • 1986 – 670,000 45%
  • 1989 – 873,000 58%
  • 1993 – 1,124,000 75%
  • 1999 – 403,000 27%
  • 2001 – 97,500 7%
  • 2004 – 48,300 3%
  • 2008 – 81,000 6%
  • 2014 – 261,900 17%
  • 2015 – 315,470 20%
  • 2016 – 127,500 9%

In some populations, conservation actions are making an impact, and the population of saiga has increased during certain years, only to be affected again by poaching or the recent disease. More needs to be done throughout the saiga’s range to secure their survival.

Saiga are migratory, and some populations cross national boundaries, which adds to the challenges of conserving this rare animal. At SCA we have made it our mission to do everything we can to restore the saiga to its position as the flagship species of the Eurasian steppes.

Data for this chart includes population numbers for four separate saiga populations shown on the map above: Betpak-dala, Ustirt, Ural and Kalmykia populations. Not included are numbers for Mongolian saiga, as data has been very limited over the years. Best estimates show a modest population growth of the Mongolian herd, from an estimated 1000 saiga in the early 1990s to nearly 15,000 in 2014.