- Capra tatarica Linnaeus, 1766
Saiga, Mongolian Saiga, Saiga Antelope
IUCN: СR; CITES (II)
Value of species
Game (hunting) species
IUCN: Critically Endangered A2acd
Saiga tatarica is the only species in the genus Saiga. Although there is little geographical variation, two subspecies are recognized: Saiga tatarica tatarica (the nominate subspecies, to which the majority of the global population belong), and Saiga tatarica mongolica (endemic to western Mongolia). Grubb (2005) recognized the Pleistocene mammoth-steppe Saiga as a distinct species S. borealis, including the living subspecies mongolica.
Saiga tatarica inhabited the steppes and semi-desert regions of south-eastern Europe and Central Asia from the Precaspian steppes to Mongolia and western China. Currently, there is one population in Russia (Kalmykia) and three in Kazakhstan, although in winter some animals reach Uzbekistan and even northern Turkmenistan. A distinctive subspecies occurs in western Mongolia (the nominate subspecies formerly occurred in the Dzungarian Gobi of south-western Mongolia, but has not been seen in 40 years). Saiga became extinct in China by the 1960s, and in Ukraine in the 18th century.
Historically, this was a common species in Eurasian steppes and semi-deserts. From information provided in recent references it appears that between 1991 and 1994, the global population of S. tatarica was relatively stable at just under one million animals, the majority of which were in Kazakhstan (approximately 810,00–825,000) (Bekenov et al. 1998, Lushchekina et al. 1999, Sokolov and Zhirnov 1998). However, the population in Kazakhstan had fallen to around 570,000 animals by 1998 (A.B. Bekenov and Iu. A. Grachev, in litt. to ASG).
In European Russia (Kalmykia), the Saiga population steeply declined after land reclamation of the Volga basin started, but the species remained numerous within the distribution area. In the 1970s the population recovered to ca.700,000–800,000 as a result of hunting regulation. However, since then the population has drastically declined. In 1980 there were an estimated 380,000 individuals, in 1996 there were 196,000, and by 2000 just 26,000 (see Milner-Gulland et al. 2001 for annual survey results for 1980–2000). At present there are no more than 18,000 animals in Kalmykia. Sex ratio is severely skewed; the proportion of males varies from 1 to 10% in different years.
The population of Mongolian Saiga increased from ca. 3,000 in 1998, to 5,200 in 2000 helped by favourable climatic conditions and active conservation measures by WWF–Mongolia. Numbers fell between 2000 and 2002 as a result of severe winters and summer drought. They continued to decline in 2002–2003, mainly because of poaching. Numbers were ca. 1,020 in 2003, and 750 in January 2004 (J. Chimeg, in litt.).
In total, the global population of Saiga is now estimated at ca.50,000, down from 1,250,000 in the mid-1970s, with most animals found in Kazakhstan.
The Saiga is a nomadic herding species that generally inhabits the open dry steppe grasslands and semi-arid deserts of Central Asia. Bekenov et al. (1998) described the typical habitat as flat open areas covered with low-growing vegetation, allowing animals to run quickly; areas of broken terrain or dense cover are generally avoided, but animals may stray into these out of necessity.
The Saiga is a migratory species with widely separated summer (northern) and winter (southern) ranges. The species lives in large herds, usually up to thousand individuals. It has a high rate of reproduction and recruitment. In years with a favourable climate the population can increase by up to 60% in a single year (Chan et al. 1995). Very few animals in a population are more than 3.5 years old, indicating that the population is almost completely renewed after four years (Bekenov et al. 1998).