Saiga antelope

These unmistakable antelopes have sadly become rare in recent years because of uncontrolled hunting for their horns, which are in high demand for oriental medicine.

The saiga antelope is migratory and well-adapted to its cold, windswept habitat. It has a heavy fawnish-cinnamon coat, with a fringe of long hairs from chin to chest. In the winter it changes to a uniformly creamy-white and becomes thick and woolly. It is thought that the saiga antelopes enlarged nose, with downward-pointing nostrils, may be an adaptation for warming and moisturizing air. The nasal passages are lined with hairs, glands and mucous tracts. In each nostril there is a sac, lined with mucous membranes that appears in no other mammal but the whale. The male’s horns are thought to have medicinal value by the Chinese; this led to overhunting. Saiga antelopes have been protected since 1920, and there are now over a million of them.

Saiga antelopes feed on low-growing shrubs and grass, and in autumn large herds gather and move off southward to warmer, lusher pastures. When spring comes, groups of 2 to 6 males begin to return northward, followed by the females. This is when the rutting season starts, and fights between males are often brutal — the majority actually die during this period. In May, after a gestation of about 5 months, the female gives birth to 1 to 3 young, which are suckled until the autumn.

Distribution: From the vicinity of the Black Sea eastwards through the arid steppes of Russia to northwestern China, with a separate population in Mongolia.

Habitat: Treeless plains.

Weight: 21 - 51 kg (46 - 112 lb); males are heavier.

Length: 114 - 159 cm (45 - 63 in), including tail; stands up to 80 cm (31 in) tall.

Maturity: Females 8 months; males about a year later.

Gestation Period: 140 days.

Breeding: 1 in the first litter, then 2; weaning at 120 - 160 days.

Food: Grazes on vegetation including grass, small plants and lichens.

Life span: 10-12 years in the wild.

Status: Vulnerable.

Horns

The horns, only present in males, are ringed apart from at their tips, and grow up to 25 cm (1O in) long.

Nose

The nose is a broad, proboscis-like structure with clearly defined nostrils.

Changing appearance

The saiga’s winter coat is much lighter in colour than its summer one, providing effective camouflage in a snowy landscape.

Legs

The legs appear rather slender in comparison with the stocky body.

Underparts

White colouration extends right along the underside of the body, contrasting with the summer coat.

SYNCHRONIZED DELIVERY

Birthing is coordinated, so all females produce their calves at the same time.

Gallery of Saiga antelope