Saiga antelope (Saiga tatarica)  are steppe animals with a strange-looking snout. True members of the antelope family, they are the size and shape of sheep. They have large, bulbous eyes and a nose with a stubby trunk, large nostrils and mucous glands that are so are numerous and large they cause they animals's head to bulge. The purpose of the animals nose features is to warm and moisten the air and filter dust. Saiga are very efficient at converting steppe grasses to meat. Only male saiga antelope have horns. They are simple, amber-colored, straight spikes.

Saiga weigh between 30 nd 45 kilograms (66.08 to 99.12 pounds). Their average life span is 10 to 12 years.  Saiga populations are concentrated in three main areas within central Asia: Mongolia, Kazakhstan, and Kalmykia. They inhabit dry steppes and semi deserts. Herds are found in grassy plains void of rugged terrain and hills. [Source:Animal Diversity Web, University of Michigan, ~]

According to Animal Diversity Web: The most striking feature of a saiga is its large head with a huge mobile nose that hangs over its mouth. Males have a pair of long, waxy colored horns with ring-like ridges along their length. Except for the unusual snout and horns, S. tatarica look similar to small sheep. Saiga antelopes are approximately .6 meters to .8 meters tall at shoulder height and are approximately 1 meters to 1.5 meters long. They have long, thin legs and a slightly robust body. During the summer, S. tatarica have a short coat that is yellowish red on the back and neck with a paler underside. In the winter, the coat becomes thicker and longer. The winter pelage is dull gray on the back and neck and a very light, brown-gray shade on the belly. Saiga antelopes also have a short tail. ~

Antelopes, deer, cattle, sheep, goats, yaks, buffalo, giraffes and their relatives are ruminants — cud-chewing mammals that have a distinctive digestive system designed to obtain nutrients from large amounts of nutrient-poor grass.Ruminants evolved about 20 million years ago in North America and migrated from there to Europe and Asia and to a lesser extent South America, where they never became widespread.

Sources: Saiga Conservation Alliance and Wildlife Conservation Society.

Saiga Reproduction, Offspring and Feeding Behavior

Saiga are adapted to deal with harsh environmental conditions such as severe drought, bitterly cold winters and fire. Females have a high breeding rate. They can mate at the age of four months, when they are not completely grown, and three quarters of them gave birth to twins.

According to Animal Diversity Web: “Female saigas reach sexual maturity at 7 to 8 months while the males which reach sexual maturity at 2 years. The breeding period lasts from late November to late December. A female is pregnant for 5 months and usually gives birth to two young. Young begin to graze at 4-8 days old. Lactation lasts for about four months. In captivity, young saigas occasionally nurse from unrelated adults; however, this has never been observed in the wild.  [Source:Animal Diversity Web, University of Michigan, ~]

“Saiga are polygamous. 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. Male saigas grow very weak toward the end of the breeding season. They do not graze at all during the breeding season and spend most of their stored energy defending their harem. As a result, male mortality often reaches 80 to 90 percent. When the breeding season is over, S. tatarica form herds consisting of 30-40 individuals. They occasionally migrate as a group to escape snowstorms and droughts. 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 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. . Wolves are the principle natural predator of adult and new born saiga. Foxes and stray dogs prey on newborn saigas. ~

Endangered Saiga Antelope

Saiga antelopes are valued for their fur, meat, and horns. Their horns are considered their most valuable feature. The horns are ground up and commonly used in Chinese medicine to reduce fevers. Saiga tatarica occasionally trample agricultural plants and feed on crops.  Up until 1990, Saiga tatarica were successfully managed by the Soviet Union. However, the break-up of the Soviet state led to the end of the intense management of the saiga antelope. Currently, the population is rapidly declining due to severe poaching.

Adam Taylor wrote in the Washington Post, “As a species, saiga antelopes have endured a lot. They once roamed the Earth with Wooly Mammoths during the last Ice Age and but were almost driven to extinction by a loss of habitat and hunting during the late-20th century. Now the distinctive animals, easily distinguished by their large noses and prized for their meat and horns, are considered an endangered species and protected by the government of Kazakhstan.  [Source: Adam Taylor, Washington Post,  May 29 2015]

As was true with the American bisons, saiga numbered in the millions in the 19th century. They could be found from the Caspian Sea in the west to the Gobi desert in the east.  Horsemen and other Central Asian people who lived in the steppe loved the taste of saiga meat. It was not unusual for ten thousand animals to be killed in a single hunt.

With the introduction of guns they began being killed off at an alarming rate. By 1829, they had been exterminated from much for the middle of their range between the Urals and the Volga. By the beginning of the 20th fewer than a thousand remained.

There were once 3 million saiga roaming the steppes of Kazakhstan. Now there are only around 150,000. The rest have been lost to hunters, loss of habitat and pollution.  Hundreds of thousands of saiga are believed to have died as a result of a single accident in 1985 when a Proton rocket blasting off from the cosmodrome at Baiknonure crashed and sprayed fuel over thousands  of square kilometers of steppe.

Under the Soviets, hunting saiga was banned and the animals recovered.  Within 50 years the number of saiga grew from a few hundred to a two million. In the Soviet era, to keep them from becoming overpopulated a quarter of million were culled every year.

Josh L Davis wrote in “They were previously heavily hunted, mainly for their horns, which were used as a replacement for rhino in traditional medicine. In a terrible case of poor lack of judgement, the WWF is thought to have had a hand in the decline of the species during the 1990s. At the start of the decade, there were thought to have been around a million of the antelopes roaming the steppes of central Asia, but in a bid to try and ease the poaching of rhinos for their horn, the WWF actually encouraged the use of the saiga horn, leading to their populations to crash.  [Source: Josh L Davis,, April 16, 2016]

Over 200,000 Saiga Mysteriously Die in Just a Few Weeks

In the spring of 2015, an estimated 200,000 saiga died en masse. Adam Taylor wrote in the Washington Post, “In just a few weeks, vast numbers of the species been found dead – Kazakhstan officials have said that almost 121,000 carcasses have been counted, according to Reuters, a number officials from the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) have confirmed. For an endangered species, this is dramatic, if not catastrophic. Kazakhstan's has around 90 percent of the world's saiga population... before the deaths began. Experts are clearly shocked. "It is very painful to witness this mass mortality," Erlan Nysynbaev, vice minister of the Ministry of Agriculture of Kazakhstan, said. [Source: Adam Taylor, Washington Post,  May 29 2015 |*|]

Josh L Davis wrote in “It has been estimated that over 200,000 of the animals dropped dead over a matter of days, with scenes of entire herds of the antelope, made up of mothers with calves, littering the landscape...When researchers first discovered the dead and dying animals on the Kazakhstani grasslands, they had no idea as to the scale of the disaster. The first accounts were still shocking, putting the number of dead saiga in the tens of thousands, but as more reports came out conservationists realized the full extent of the die-off.  It is thought that as much as 88 percent of the antelope from the Betpak-dala desert of Kazakhstan succumbed, accounting for roughly 70 percent of the entire global population of the already endangered antelope... Before the mass dying, the antelope numbers stood at around 300,000. ” [Source: Josh L Davis,, April 16, 2016]

Andrew C. Revkin wrote in the New York Times: “Hastily bulldozed pits brim with corpses... The enormous new saiga die-off is particularly devastating to conservation biologists because efforts to cut poaching (for meat and “medicinal” horns) were gaining steam in recent years.  "It's very dramatic and traumatic, with 100 per cent mortality," Richard Kock of the Royal Veterinary College told the New Scientist from Kazakhstan. "I know of no example in history with this level of mortality, killing all the animals and all the calves," Kock added, noting that the animals die after respiratory problems and extreme diarrhea. [Source: Andrew C. Revkin, New York Times, May 29, 2015]

“The huge scale of the deaths initially left some scientists baffled, and some unusual theories spread – the Kazakhstan's Space Agency have said that they could see no link between the deaths of the animals and a number of Russian space rocket launches near the area they live, though they could not yet rule it out (these launches have already caused some controversy in Kazakhstan). On Thursday, researchers working with the UNEP say that two pathogens, Pasteurella and Clostridia, appeared to be contributing to the die off, but that the animals appear to have already had their immune systems weakened by another unknown factor. |*|

"The death of the saiga antelope is a huge tragedy," zoology scientist Bibigul Sarsenova told Reuters. "Should this happen again next year, they may simply disappear." But the hope is that if the deaths can be controlled or stopped, the animals can bounce back, again. |*|

Noxious Weeds to Blame for Massive Saiga Die Off?

Some scientists blamed the saiga die off on a “communal binge” on poisonous noxious weeds that thrive in the region in warm, wet springs.  It had been quite wet before the die off. The closest city to the area where the die-off occurred, Astana, reported that a month’s worth of rain fell on a single day.  [Source: Andrew C. Revkin, New York Times, May 29, 2015 ^^]

Andrew C. Revkin wrote in the New York Times: “Speculation on the cause has focused on various diseases, including ailments related to bacteria found in some specimens by an international team that has raced to the region. AU.N. news release, though, stresses that those pathogens are not triggers: “[I]t is becoming clear that two secondary opportunistic pathogens, specifically Pasteurella and Clostridia, are contributing to the rapid and wide-spread die-off. However, the hunt for the fundamental drivers of the mass mortality continues since these bacteria are only lethal to an animal if its immune system is already weakened.” ^^

Knock said: “We just need to try to gather all the evidence we can from the animals and the environment. In the end this will guide us to the pathogenesis of this problem. Until then much of what you will read is speculation.. We have a pretty good idea of the proximate cause of death but less understanding of possible triggers but noxious weeds I doubt, as the steppe was looking pretty good over this die off and the animals are highly selective so not likely to make mistakes on diet. Rich grass might upset the stomach and rain and warmth can promote this so perhaps a factor but we will need a lot of work to prove this. Hopefully it will be done. ^^

“It is dose that matters and no evidence any single plant was in abundance in the rumen other than grasses. The ingestion of nutrient dense grasses might have led to some ruminal disorder and subsequent tympany and toxicosis. The animals in these outbreaks were eating mainly wheat grass from my limited examination of grazed plants and a few more of their normal food plants – no evidence for pure plant toxicity remember they are highly selective feeders! But pasture analysis would help including toxicology to rule this out and also looking at other potential toxic factors – perhaps in water although plenty of this around this year – I doubt algal toxicosis as a trigger but all this should be ruled out.” ^^

Previous Saiga Die Offs Offer Clues to What Happened in 2015

Andrew C. Revkin wrote in the New York Times: “I began sifting the literature on saiga mortality and found strong hints of a possible cause in a study of smaller saiga die-offs in 2010 (12,000 animals) and 2011 (just 450) in the animal’s westernmost population, in the Urals. The paper has a ponderous title — “Examination of the forage basis of saiga in the Ural population on the background of the mass death in May 2010 and 2011.”  The first thing that struck me was the similarity in timing. Those events and this year’s mass dying were in mid to late May.The reported symptoms in the dead and dying animals are the same, as well: foaming at the mouth, diarrhea and bloating. The paper on the Urals deaths also notes that well before the 2010 and 2011 events, there had been previous die-offs including in 1955, 1956, 1958, 1967, 1969, 1974, 1981 and 1988. [Source: Andrew C. Revkin, New York Times, May 29, 2015 ^^]

Til Dieterich, one of the authors of the paper on the Ural-region dyings, said: “As with an airplane crash, there is not only one cause behind this and it is not unprecedented…. In 1988 there was a mass death with 434,000 animals dead (68 percent of  the population) more or less in the same region.” According to a paper by Dieterich and Bibigul Sarsenova: “Mass death of Saiga antelopes took place from 18 to 21 May 2010 in the north west of West Kazakhstan province northeast and southeast of Borsy (about 12, 000 dead animals found). In August and September the forage basis of Saiga antelope in the mass death area was investigated. ^^

“Mass growth of potentially poisonous Brassicacea species for ruminants could be found on abandoned fields in the area (Lepidium perfoliatum, Lepidium ruderale, Descurainia sophia and Thlaspi arvense). Due to favorable warm and wet weather conditions in spring 2010 the mass growth of these annual Brassicacea species occurred on a big scale. Even though Saiga is capable to eat large amount of this plants, they are poisonous to ruminants when consumed in large amounts. ^^

“In addition lush growth of Brassicacea and Poacea species (Poa bulbosa, Eremophyrum triticeum, Leymus ramosus, Elytrigia repens) providing high protein forage, can cause the observed symptoms of foamy fermentation, diarrhea and bloating. The animals thus could have been killed by extreme bloating and/or acute pulmonary edema (“fog fever”) after foraging on wet and highly nutritious “fog pastures.” Qualitative investigations in the field confirmed that the animals ate most above-mentioned species….In addition the animals have been congregating for calving, which does contribute to a higher background stress. The results of the investigation suggest that a combination of at least some of the above listed factors is responsible for the tragic events. ^^

“In both years the Saiga death events started just after the females and their 1–2 week old young started to move again. During the first 10 days of the calving time the females did not leave their young and not even move to the nearby water places for drinking. In both cases the calving sites where some meters higher and covered either by mainly steppe vegetation (2010, Stipa-Festuca Steppe) or Leymus ramosus grassland on fallow fields. Thus the moist pastures where presumably more intensively used during the death event. Nevertheless the heavy rain events just before or during the death event, did certainly lead to very moist fodder especially in the morning hours. In 2010 even fog was reported by the locals just before the dying started. The local people also reported, that Lepidium species do cause diarrhea in cattle and after heavy rain events herders do not let their livestock out to the pastures before noon. ^^

“Wet and warm weather conditions have also been reported for the Betbak Dala Population during the spring death events in 1981 and 1988. The animals have also been calving for the first time in the Borsy area usually using pastures further south in the semi desert region. Part of the Saiga population did actually calve further south in the semi-desert area 2011 and no deaths were reported here. Wet weather conditions in spring combined with lush pastures are thus obviously problematic to Saiga.

“The paper includes recommendations to limit risks of such events going forward: With this evidence on hand we recommend in similar wet years to keep Saiga off such dangerous pastures and train the responsible rangers in identifying the described dangerous conditions. If it turns out difficult or dangerous for the Saiga population to keep them off dangerous pastures, the relevant areas should just be cut during the time when the animals are immobile during the first 10 days of calving. Cutting the dangerous pastures will prevent excessive development of toxins and protein in the plants. Even if the plants are eaten dry the risk of negative effects is minimized. The authors warn against expanding agriculture in saiga territory, noting that plowing or herbicide use would simply lead to mass growth of the weedy toxic species in the cleared area...This will enlarge the risk of pasture problems even more.”

Cause of the Massive Saiga Antelope Die Off Figured Out

In April 2016, the Saiga Conservation Alliance announced that the massive die off of the saiga antelope was caused by a normally benign bacteria suddenly becoming deadly – although exactly how and why this happened is not known. Josh L Davis wrote in After continued analysis of samples taken from the carcasses of the saiga, multiple laboratories have come to the same conclusion and identified the bacterium Pasteurella multocida as the cause. It is thought that the bacteria, which naturally lives in the respiratory tract of the animals and normally has no impact on their health somehow became deadly, leading to haemorrhagic septicaemia. The symptoms of the condition include a high fever, salivation, and shortness of breath, followed by death within 24 hours. This is consistent with what was observed in the field. [Source:Josh L Davis,, April 16, 2016 ~]

“It is not unknown for domestic animals to suffer from the same condition, but what is particularly unusual is the 100 percent mortality rate seen in the saiga herds. The reasons behind this are less clear, but could be related to earlier suggestions that unusual weather conditions may have been stressing the animals, many of which were mothers who had just given birth. ~

“As the Saiga Conservation Alliance says, the investigation into the animals’ deaths is still ongoing, with questions such as these still to clear up. With a next calving season creeping up, many biologists are waiting with baited breath to see what will occur. ~

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian,  National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated April 2016

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