Throughout saiga range states it is illegal to hunt saiga. Yet overexploitation remains the primary threat to the species.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, saiga populations declined by more than 90% - primarily due to poaching for the species’ meat and horn. This population collapse is one of the fastest observed in a large mammal in recent decades.
The species is well adapted to cope with disease epidemics,and has the potential for a very rapid population recovery. But currently, all the Saiga populations are at very low numbers, having been decimated by poaching. This means they are not resilient to such events, and there is a real possibility of the Ural population being lost if it is not given the chance to recover naturally.
Nearly 12,000 Critically Endangered Saiga Antelopes of the Ural population in western Kazakhstan were found dead over the a single week in May 2010. The dead were mostly females who had recently given birth, and the whole population was less than 40,000 animals. The Ural Saiga population is one of only five of this species remaining in the world, so these deaths represent a severe blow both to this population and to the species as a whole.
It migrates large distances between summer and winter pastures, travelling in herds that can number in the thousands. It is a relic of Ice Age fauna that included mammoths and saber-tooth cats.
Resembling a character from a Dr. Seuss book, the saiga antelope has evolved to be perfectly adapted to its life in the steppe and semi-desert of Central Asia and Russia. The saiga’s range includes some of the harshest landscape in the world.
Declared critically endangered by the World Conservation Union in 2002, saiga antelope were once abundant in the steppe grasslands and semi-arid desert habitat of southern Russia and Central Asia. Their numbers in the wild have dropped from over 1,000,000 in the early 1990s to fewer than 30,000 today.
Saiga are one of the most ancient mammals, having shared the Earth with saber-toothed tigers and woolly mammoths. At that time saiga inhabited a vast territory ranging from the British Isles to Alaska. Immense herds of saiga, numbering in the tens of thousands, once roamed the steppe landscape. This evolutionarily unique animal, the only species in the genus Saiga, has cultural and historical significance for the people of Central Asia as a symbol of the traditional nomadic lifestyle.
Only the males carry horns, but these are much valued, as indeed is the meat. Last century, it numbered in the millions, but over-hunting reduced its numbers to a few hundred.
It is a small antelope, about the size of a sheep, albeit a long-legged sheep, currently found in the semi-deserts and on the steppes, the dry grasslands, that stretch from the borders of Romania across the southern Ukraine and Khazakstan to Mongolia. It's most noticeable feature is a greatly inflated nose, believed to be a structure that prevents dust from entering the lungs, but perhaps at least as important for conserving heat and moisture during the cold dry winters that characterize the steppes.