The saiga is a strange-looking medium-sized antelope.
Saiga populations are concentrated in three main areas within central Asia: southwestern Russia, Mongolia and Kazakhstan.
Saigas inhabit dry steppes and semi deserts. Herds are found in grassy plains void of rugged terrain and hills.
The lifespan of the saiga is up to 12 years in the wild.
The adult saiga stands about 61 to 81 centimeters (24 to 32 inches) at the shoulder and weighs 31 to 43 kilograms (68 to 95 pounds). The head-and-body length is typically between 100 and 140 centimeters (39 and 55 inches).
The most outstanding feature of the saiga is its swollen snout with downward-directed nostrils. The snout serves to warm and moisten inhaled air; it may be related to the animal’s keen sense of smell, and it may also work as a sounding chamber for rutting calls. The complex saiga nasal cavity resembles that of a whale!
Males have a pair of long, waxy colored horns with ring-like ridges along their length.
The saiga’s coat is short and pale brown in summer and thick and whitish in winter.
While the sense of hearing is poorly developed in the saiga, their sense of sight is acute and they are able to see danger up to a kilometer (0.6 mile) away.
Saiga antelopes are herbivores. They graze on over one hundred different plant species; the most important being grasses, prostrate summer cypress, saltworts, fobs, sagebrush, and steppe lichens.
During the day, saigas graze and visit watering holes. Before resting at night, they dig small circular depressions in the soil to serve as beds.
Saiga form herds of 30 to 50 animals. However, during the migration season tens of thousands of saiga will travel together, forming part of one of the most spectacular migrations in the world.
They can cover long distances and swim across rivers, but they avoid steep or rugged areas.
Saigas can run about 80 kilometers (50 miles) per hour when necessary.
Saiga tatarica are a polygamous species. During the breeding season, saigas congregate into groups consisting of 5 to 10 females and one male. Males are very protective of their harem. Violent fights often break out between two males. It is not uncommon for a male saiga to kill another during these battles.
After a gestation period of 139 to 152 days, females give birth in late April and May. About two-thirds of females give birth to twins; the rest have singletons. Youngsters nibble on grass within the first week of life; they are weaned at around four months old.
A newborn saiga can outrun a human by its second day of life.
Saigas are highly vulnerable to wolves. Juveniles are targeted by foxes, steppe eagles, golden eagles, dogs, and ravens.
The breakup of the former USSR led to uncontrolled hunting for meat.
Since 2002 the saiga has been considered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to be critically endangered.
Saigas are still poached, especially because their horns are sometimes used as remedies in traditional Chinese medicine. To make matters worse, their habitat has been reduced by construction, and despite their broad dietary preferences food is becoming scarcer.
In May 2015, more than 120,000 saiga died in Kazakhstan from what may have been a sudden outbreak of pasteurellosis (zoonotic disease).
In late 2016, a large loss of the population happened in Mongolia. The etiology was confirmed to be goat plague in early 2017.
Saigas were once common from Poland to western Mongolia. They also lived in Beringian North America during the Pleistocene.