Where do saiga antelope live?
The word ‘antelope’ conjures up visions of Africa; a foot race between cheetah and gazelle, impalas alert for a leopard lying in ambush; herds of wildebeest streaming across the plain. But Asia has its very own antelope. The vast steppes of Eurasia – stretching from Hungary to northeast China – were once carpeted with uncountable numbers of saiga.
Regrettably, such spectacular sights are a thing of the past. Today, this enigmatic ungulate with the extraordinary nose is largely confined to a single country in Central Asia. Kazakhstan is estimated to harbour well over 90% of the global saiga population, with Russia, Mongolia and Uzbekistan accounting for the rest.
What are the main threats to saiga antelope?
Poaching on an industrial scale has contributed significantly to the saiga’s dramatic decline, but it is by no means the only factor. Habitat loss and fragmentation, catastrophic disease outbreaks and increasingly restricted access to historical migration routes have also taken a heavy toll.
Saiga have always been hunted for their meat, horns and skins. Male saiga are a particular target, because their horns are coveted by traditional medicine practitioners. In the 1990s, poaching reached epidemic levels after misguided conservationists tried to relieve the pressure on threatened African rhinos by actively encouraging the use of saiga horn in traditional medicine as an alternative to rhino horn. Male saiga were almost wiped out, leading to a population crash from which the species has been struggling to recover ever since.
Traditional saiga feeding grounds are being lost to agricultural expansion and human settlement. Physical barriers such as railways, pipelines and fences can block the seasonal migration routes of this transboundary species. In the worst cases, herds may starve to death after being trapped.
In 2015, the largest of Kyrgyzstan’s three saiga populations was decimated by an outbreak of haemorrhagic septicaemia – caused by the bacterium Pasteurella multocida – which killed over 75% of the global adult saiga population in just three weeks.
In 2017, 60% of the Mongolian saiga population – a subspecies found nowhere else in the world – was killed by a viral infection spilling over from livestock. These so-called mass mortality events pose an unpredictable but potentially existential threat to the species.
Although wonderfully well adapted to cold winters and hot summers, saiga struggle to cope with temperature extremes and unpredictable fluctuations in climate.
Experts believe that unusually warm and wet weather may have triggered the mass mortality event that saw a normally harmless bacterium opportunistically invade the antelopes’ bloodstream, with fatal consequences for over 200,000 saiga.
The saiga’s steppe habitat has become increasingly arid in recent years, reducing the availability of healthy pastureland and drying out the smaller water courses away from human habitation that the species normally relies on.