The saiga, an antelope native to Mongolia and nearby regions, is facing a variety of challenges. Listed as a vulnerable species, the population has been dwindling since the 1980s and the demise of the former Soviet Union. In fact, the drop has been about 95% in the past 20 years. Droughts have presented a challenge – making it difficult to find suitable pasture. In addition, domestic animals driven by herders are competing for the same limited resources. Add in poachers and now motorized traffic, and the saiga’s habitat is looking downright dangerous.
North America used to have its own saiga population, in Alaska and the Yukon, until about 10,000 years ago. But the steppes of Russia, Mongolia, and neighbouring countries is the last refuge of this odd creature. Researchers with the Wildlife Conservation Society are conducting a study on this little-known nomadic species, to better understand the saiga and its needs. This work will soon be published in the Open Conservation Biology Journal. Radio collars are used to track the movements of adult females. Traditional saiga migration routes coincide with local access roads, which could present a problem for animals – human residents are increasingly using cars and motorcycles.
In at least one area, separate saiga populations are connected by narrow “corridor” areas. This passage is the only route for contact; without it, the saiga populations become genetically less diverse. Given the small number of saigas, and the changeable nature of their habitat, a population bottleneck could prove disastrous in future generations. Researchers are keen to ensure that the corridor remains accessible to migrating animals.
The saiga is a small antelope with a uniquely bulbous nose. This facial feature is thought to both filter out airborne dust in the summer and warm frigid air in the winter. These antelopes live about 6-10 years, bearing calves yearly after the age of one (females) or two (males). Saiga move constantly, covering up to 120 kilometres (72 miles) each day. Typically, animals travel north in the spring – travelling to summer grazing pastures – and return south in the autumn.
A clear picture of saiga movements may be the key to conservation. The Mongolian Ministry of Natural Environment has announced plans to develop a saiga nature reserve, along with measures to limit herding along key corridors and clamp down on hunting. Saiga horns – found only on males – have been used as a substitute for rhino horn. Ironically, a measure intended to alleviate pressure on endangered rhino species is now threatening the saiga.