December 25th, 2008

Saiga Antelope

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Saiga Antelope!  Scientists have very little idea as to how to classify this thing, other than that it's somewhere between an anteleope and a gazelle. Its taxonomy seems to change every few years and varied from web page to web page that I checked.

The Saiga's fleshy proboscis has a wide range of mobility and a unique internal structure, with convoluted bones, and numerous hairs and mucous-secreting glands.  The large nose is functional throughout the year, filtering out airborne dust during the summer migrations and heating the air before it reaches the lungs during the icy winters.  The eyes of the saiga, when viewed from straight on, appear to stand out on small, bony protrusions.  The thick body is supported by spindly legs.  Males alone bear the semi-translucent, wax-coloured horns which grow 20-25 cm / 8-10 inches long. 

A nomadic species, saiga have no fixed home ranges and usually walk several dozen kilometers in a given day throughout the steppes and semi deserts of Russia and Mongolia, although they once ranged from England to Alaska .  The saiga is an extremely good runner, and is able to reach speeds up to 80 kmph / 48 mph.  Populations undertake seasonal migrations, moving north in the spring to the summer grazing grounds, and returning southward in the fall.  Covering 80-120 km / 48-72 miles per day, saiga march with their heads low to the ground, with their specialized noses filtering out the stirred up dust from the air.  The rut begins in the wintering grounds, with mature males becoming territorial and attempting to gather a harem of females.
A female saiga will begin breeding and give birth to her first calf by the time she’s a year old. Mature females bear two or even three calves a year. “This is a very resilient species,” says Milner-Gulland. “It has shown its ability to bounce back from very low numbers.”

A timid species, the saiga can be easily startled, causing immediate flight, even in the huge migrating herds.  While the sense of hearing is poorly developed in the saiga, their sense of sight is acute and they are able to see danger up to a kilometer / 0.6 miles away.  Under favourable conditions, saiga will visit a water hole twice every day.

The antelope’s populations are being decimated by poachers, who target males for foot-long horns used in Chinese medicine.
  At the beginning of the twentieth century, with its numbers down to just a few thousand, the saiga was nearly extinct. It got a second chance, though, when the Soviet Union was created in 1917. Not only did officials ban saiga hunting from 1919 until the 1950s—with strictly enforced quotas after that—they closed the country’s borders, which stopped international trade in saiga horns. By 1958, the antelope’s population had swelled to two million, making it the most numerous ungulate in the Soviet Union.
It was at that point that some conservation groups such as the World Wildlife Fund encouraged the hunting of the saiga, and presented its horns as an alternative to poaching rhinocerous.

Great Job WWF!   After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the black market for saiga horns fueled unprecedented poaching. the number of saiga antelope that inhabit Eurasia has plummeted by 90 percent  since 1991—one of the fastest and most dramatic declines of any animal species in recent history. males now make up less than 1 percent of the population in Kalmykia, down from 25 percent in 1991.  During one harsh winter four years ago, some 80,000 saiga crossed from Kalmykia into the neighboring Russian republic of Dagestan to the south. Weeks later, only a few animals returned. Witnesses reported that the snow was red with blood from the slaughter. 
There are only about 42-50,000 left today.

Anecdotal observations suggest that this dearth of males has forced females to begin competing for them, with 500 or more females sometimes vying for a single male. The result is that many subdominant females are not able to breed at all.

The Saiga is only 60-80 cm at the shoulder (2-2.6 ft) and at the most weigh 21-51 kg (46-112 lbs) It's like a dog!

lots of sauces: