The saiga antelope has an old soul – they have roamed the Earth since the age of mammoths, saber-toothed cats, and woolly rhinos. Their distinctive feature, a large hooked nose, not only characterizes them as anomalous creatures, but it’s actually functional – it acts as a filter for sand and dust in the summertime and warms air en route to the lungs in wintertime. It’s a highly valuable adaptation to the formidable climates of the small corner of the world that they occupy now: Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Russia, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Recent events have threatened that they could face a similar fate as the colossal ancient species they once grazed among.
In the 1990s, the saiga thrived with a population of over one million. Over 20 years, they were reduced to 262,000, and now, out of nowhere, a mass die-off in Kazakhstan has reduced that population by more than half in the last few weeks. Scientists are stumped over the cause, the only clue being pathogens, pasteurella and clostridia, found in the carcasses, meaning a polymicrobial disease was a factor, although could have only been lethal to an already weakened immune system. So, environmental factors are even more likely to have actually led to the deaths. Habitat loss due to agriculture is the saiga’s biggest threat aside from illegal poaching of their majestic horns for Chinese medicine. (Males are hunted for these prized horns, leaving female populations at a massive disadvantage for breeding potential.)
The saiga plays an instrumental role in the shaping of their ecosystem – wolves, birds of prey, foxes, ground nesting birds, and rodents all depend on the saiga to graze course plants and give access to digestible vegetation. If the saiga disappears, the whole food chain of the region’s steppes are in peril. The World Wildlife Fund wants those interested in these unique animals to share their story, in hopes that one day their epic migration – in which tens of thousands of saiga band together to traverse the Southeastern Europe and Central Asian steppes – can be witnessed in all its glory once again.
Photo by Igor Shpilenok