Saigas: A Species on the Brink of Extinction

Saiga antelopes drink from a lake outside Almaty, Kazakhstan. Photograph: Anatoly Ustinenko/AFP/Getty Images
Saiga antelopes drink from a lake outside Almaty, Kazakhstan. Photograph: Anatoly Ustinenko/AFP/Getty Images

The endangered species of the Saiga antelope is facing a new viral threat. In the last several weeks thousands have died as the references below indicate.

Over the countless centuries on this planet traversing the cosmos species grand and glorious have flourished on this terrestrial ball hanging in space. Based on fossil records and drawings on smoke-stained cave walls, we have glimpses into the past.

We know that as humans became more industrialized they became hunters of sport or merchants of commerce. The great whaling vessels of the past hunted the whale for its various parts, especially the oil.

In the American West buffalo hunters almost extinguished the great bison herds which were the lifeblood of the First Peoples or the Native Americans. Countless slaughter just for the fun of it is a sad commentary for an advancing race which became the dominant species—humans.

At one time ivory was a prize worth the price of killing majestic animals to almost extinction. Unfortunately, rhino horns and ivory tusks are still in high demand.

Today we have poachers who will hunt any animal for a price. The superstitions about the so-called magical powers of animal parts, especially the horns, feed into the hunt and the price.

The Saiga horn is a black-market item. It is an essential ingredient in a number of patent medicines in Asia.

Poachers cannot account for the mass extinction level occurring among the Saiga. Disease is likely the cause, but the determination of the cause of the rapid death will have to be determined by science.

As one ponders the fate of the Saiga, one has to wonder if one day humans will face such an extinction event. Of course, during any day on this planet thousands of humans die from an array of causes.

However, today the death of animal species on a global scale can be traced back to human activities. Habitats disappear for human living, and natural resources will also eventually disappear, especially drinking water, which will add to the growing hostilities of both animals and humans in the years to come.

The time will soon be here when my grandchild will long for the cry of a loon, the flash of a salmon, the whisper of spruce needles, or the screech of an eagle. But he will not make friends with any of these creatures and when his heart aches with longing, he will curse me. Have I done all to keep the air fresh? Have I cared enough about the water? Have I left the eagle to soar in freedom? Have I done everything I could to earn my grandchild’s fondness?”

—Chief Dan George, Tsleil-Waututh Nation (1899-1981)

G. D. Williams © 2015

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Dead Saiga antelopes lie on a field in the Zholoba area of the Kostanay region, Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan's Ministry of Agriculture/Reuters
Dead Saiga antelopes lie on a field in the Zholoba area of the Kostanay region, Kazakhstan.
Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Agriculture/Reuters


One-third of endangered saiga antelope mysteriously die off in a few days, up to 85,000 dead


The saiga, a critically endangered Asian antelope species, has been decimated by a mysterious, fast-moving disease. In the past two weeks, more than third of all saigas have been killed, conservationists have found.

The cause of the outbreak is unknown, but scientists believe it is always fatal.

“I’m flustered looking for words here,” said Joel Berger, a senior scientist at the Wildlife Conservation Society. “To lose 120,000 animals in two or three weeks is a phenomenal thing.”


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.

Around May 10, however, they began dying en masse. Now, 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 has around 90 percent of the world’s saiga population, which was estimated to be around 250,000 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.


Latest figures show that the number of dead saigas has reached 120,977, the Agriculture Ministry reported on May 27. That is 40 percent of Kazakhstan’s total saiga population of 300,000 before disease started striking down the long-nosed antelopes, according to government estimates. Astana’s figures are higher than an estimate of 265,000 released last year by the international Saiga Conservation Alliance after an aerial study of roaming grounds in Kazakhstan.

Some 90 percent of the dead animals are females, the Agriculture Ministry said. This has enormous implications for breeding capacity to restore the population.


The saiga antelope is a fawn-colored, goat-sized creature with a floppy, tubular nose that lives in the grasslands of Central Asia and Eastern Europe. Hunting and habitat loss pushed the animal onto the the endangered species list, but there were some indications that it was making a comeback. That is, until a mysterious disease started killing them.


“It’s shaping up to be a complete catastrophe,” says EJ Milner-Gulland, a UK-based academic who heads the Saiga Conservation Alliance, a network of conservationists working to protect the antelope.

“I’m afraid the animals are still dying and we are not actually getting a final number yet,” she added. “I’m expecting that number to go up quite substantially in the coming days.”

The saiga, with its distinctive bulging eyes, tubular snout and spiralled horns, is as distinctive as it is endangered. Conservationists estimate there are 260,000 saigas in Central Asia, including 200,000 in west-central Kazakhstan.

The recent animal deaths already represent the biggest decline of the species in recent history.

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