Saiga antelope Saiga tatarica

 

Status: Critically Endangered

 

Saiga antelope have an extremely distinctive appearance with an enlarged nose that hangs down over the mouth. Despite their common name these ungulates are thought to be intermediates between antelope and sheep. The coat is sparse and cinnamon-buff in the summer but becomes white and around 70% thicker in winter. The underbelly is light in colour throughout the year, and there is a small mane on the underside of the neck. Mature males have almost vertical horns; these are semi translucent and are ringed in the bottom sections.

Saiga are nomadic animals and undertake seasonal migrations from summer pastures in steppe grassland to winter pastures in desert areas. Large groups of saiga migrate southwards to the winter grounds, covering up to 72 miles in a day. During the rut, males' noses swell up and the hair tufts below the eyes are covered in a sticky secretion. Males do not feed much during the rutting season, when they take part in violent fights that often end in death. The male mortality rate can reach 90% during this time, due to exhaustion. Saiga graze on a number of different grasses, herbs and shrubs. The unusual swollen nose is thought to filter out airborne dust during the dry summer migrations and to enable cold winter air to be warmed before it reaches the lungs.

All the saiga populations have suffered from habitat degradation, poaching and disturbance. Droughts or severe winters, diseases and predation pressure from wolves can also act as threats of saiga populations, although these are unlikely to be major causes of the decline. Another main cause of the saiga's decline is the overgrazing of its pastures, general habitat degradation and construction of roads and canals.