Saiga antelope are so unfamiliar to most people that a scientist who studies them tells of carrying pictures of them in her wallet so that she could show people what she was working on. Part of the reason they remain unknown to most people is that they are rare and becoming more so. Yet once you’ve seen one or even seen a picture, they are quite recognizable and distinctive.
These animals are about 60-80 centimeters tall at the shoulder and anywhere from 26 to 69 kilograms, making them a small antelope. Their most notable feature is a large nose that looks as though it is swollen and about to sprout a full trunk like the elephant. That nose performs a variety of functions from filtering out the massive quantities of dust kicked up by large herds during summer migration to heating up cold air before it enters the lungs during winter.
The coat of the saiga antelope ranges in color from sandy or grayish-brown to yellow or even red with hairs that are about 2-3 centimeters long in summer, but 4-7 centimeters during winter. The mane can grow to 15 centimeters.
Poaching is a serious problem for saiga antelope because the horns are extremely valuable. Due to their use in traditional Chinese medicine, a single horn can be sold for hundreds of dollars. The horns are used to make drinks and tablets that are believed to cool the body and treat related problems such as fever sand sore throats.
Only males have horns, which always have pronounced rings but vary in length. In the Russian subspecies, they are 28-38 centimeters but they top out at 22 centimeters in the Mongolian subspecies. Selective hunting for horns has thrown the sex ratio off, lowering levels of reproduction. Many people believe the horns are shed each year, but that is untrue. Horns are taken from animals killed specifically for the purpose of obtaining them.
The population of saiga antelope declined by 95 percent in the 1990s. Isolated populations of this species occur in Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Russia, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, but it has been extinct in China since the 1960s due primarily to overhunting. There has been both good and bad news on their conservation status in recent years. On the positive side, a nature preserve in Russia established in the 1990s to protect the local population has had great success. In Kazakhstan, conservation efforts resulted in an increase in the population from about 21,000 in the year 2000 to 81,000 a decade later.
On the negative side, a series of die-offs have occurred since 2015 that resulted in a loss of around 40 percent of the worldwide population of saiga antelope, making their situation even more dire. One issue was a bacterial disease that led to massive deaths from pneumonia. Another was a viral disease that killed 200,000 saiga during the breeding season. The saiga antelope remains critically endangered, and its range in Central Asia is now just a small fraction of its historical range.