You may know I’m obsessed with the takin, but wow, the Saiga is equally amazing! Check out this nose:
and just look at this baby:
The saiga is an antelope, with a large, proboscis-like nose which hangs down over its mouth. That nose isn’t just for show either, it acts like a central air unit and ventilation mask!The nose has a unique internal structure: the bones are greatly developed and convoluted, and the long nostrils contain numerous hairs, glands and mucous tracts. These are thought to be adaptations for warming and moistening inhaled air during the winter, filtering out airborne dust during the dry summer migrations, and acting as counter-current heat exchange mechanisms.
Given its distribution, that nose is a life-saver!
The nominate subspecies is found in one location in Russia (steppes of the North-West Precaspian region) and three areas in Kazakhstan (the Ural, Ustiurt and Betpak-dala populations). A proportion of the Ustiurt population migrates south to Uzbekistan and occasionally Turkmenistan in winter. It is extinct in China and southwestern Mongolia. The Mongolian subspecies is found only in western Mongolia.
Renowned for its high reproductive potential, the mating season extends from December to January. During this time adult males gather groups of around 5-15 females in harems which they defend aggressively from other males. The males fight fiercely and eat very little during the rut, and up to ninety per cent may perish due to exhaustion. The saigas begin to migrate north in large groups at the beginning of April. The females stop en route, gathering in larger numbers to find a suitable place to give birth. The majority of females in the herd give birth to one or, more usually two, young within the space of a single week, overwhelming predators with the sheer number of offspring. Within a few days of birth the calves are able to travel, and the females break into smaller herds which head northwards to the summer feeding grounds. Here they join the males, and form small groups of around 30-40 animals. Newborns begin to graze at 4-8 days, but not fully weaned until 4 months. Females usually attain sexual maturity at less than a year old, and continue to grow until they are 20 months old. Males can mate at 19-20 months and grow until they reach 24 months. The fact that females mature so early and frequently bear twins enables saigas to expand their populations quickly when conditions permit – in years with a favourable climate the population can increase by up to 60% in a single year. The maximum lifespan of this species in the wild is thought to be 10-12 years, although few animals in a population are likely to survive more than 3.5 years.
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, 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.
During Soviet times the species was subject to an intensive management program, and populations remained relatively stable. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990, legal controls ended and illegal poaching intensified. Males in particular were targeted for their horns, which were seen as an alternative to rhino horn in traditional oriental medicine. The heavy hunting on male saigas has led to severely skewed sex ratios, and problems of reproductive failure through females being unable to breed because they cannot find a mate. This excaberated the severe population crash caused by poaching, and immediate conservation action is required to ensure wild populations do not become extinct within a few years.