The Saiga (Saiga tatarica): on the verge of extinction
Commonly known as Saiga, Mongolian Saiga, and Saiga Antelope, Saiga tatarica (Bovidae) is a very distinctive looking antelope, with a large, proboscis-like nose which hangs down over its mouth.
The Saiga’s nose has a unique internal structure: the bones are greatly developed and convoluted, and the long nostrils contain numerous hairs, glands and mucous tracts. The trunk-like nose of the Saiga is a striking example of an exaggerated trait, assumed to having evolved as a dust filter for inhaled air. In addition, it functions to elongate the vocal tract in harem saiga males for producing low-formant calls that serve as a cue to body size for conspecifics.
Two subspecies are recognized: Saiga tatarica tatarica, and Saiga tatarica mongolica. The nominate subspecies is found in one location in Russia, while the Mongolian subspecies is found only in western Mongolia.
Renowned for its high reproductive potential, the species was thought to be able to withstand even relatively high levels of hunting for its horns - less than 20 years ago, the total saiga population stood at more than one million, and appeared relatively stable. However, intensified poaching pressures during the 1990s, coupled with a breakdown of law enforcement following the collapse of the Soviet Union, caused numbers to plummet to fewer than 50,000 in just one decade – one of the most sudden and dramatic population crashes of a large mammal ever seen.
Currently the Saiga is classified as Critically Endangered species on the IUCN Red List.
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Photo credit: [Top: ©Igor Shpilenok | Locality: unknown] - [Bottom: ©Xavier Bayod Farre | Locality: captive at Kölner Zoo, Humboldtkolonie, Cologne, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany, 2007]