A Mhorr Gazelle, a subspecies of Dama Gazelle, on a cold February morning at the Philadelphia Zoo
A male Gerenuk, taken in the summer of 2006 at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Park
When I think about antelope, something like a Thompson’s Gazelle, Gerenuk, or Dama Gazelle most immediately comes to mind, countless nature documentaries featuring the bovids in such numbers that they are almost easy to ignore as scenery (or as merely prey for the big cats and other carnivores). There is at least one antelope, however, that would make anyone do a double take; the Saiga (Saiga tatarica).
A Saiga, Saiga tatarica, from Wikipedia.
By all accounts the Saiga is quite distinct from its cousins on the African plains. Preferring steppe, semi-desert, and desert habitats, the Saiga is known from Eastern Europe through Mongolia, their conspicuous nose warming air coming into the body in the winter and filtering out dust during the summer. While this aspect of the Saiga’s adaptation is certainly fascinating, it is the horns of the animals that have brought it the most attention, however, as well as the most trouble. As I noted in a post about antlers, horns, and sexual selection, research has shown that males and females of bovid species (which includes antelope) that use their horns as defense against predators both have horns, the horns prevented from getting too gaudy in males because they need to retain their defensive function. In the case of the Saiga, only the males carry horns, and this allows for the horns to become relatively large, and this has greatly contributed to the decline of the species.
A male Saiga, from Sokolov, Mammalian Species, No. 38, Saiga tatarica (May 2, 1974), pp. 1-4
One of the primary problems that conservation officials face in Africa and Asia today is the poaching of animals for certain parts of their anatomy for use in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), or other ritual aspects of a particular culture. To understand why the Saiga is targeted for its horns, however, we need to first look at the problems with rhinoceros poaching. Rhinoceros horns have long been treasured by various cultures, young men in Yemen traditionally carry a dagger for defense called a jambia, and there is no better material for the handle of this weapon than rhino horn. Initially, the amount of rhino horn taken was mitigated by the poverty in the region, only the most affluent families being able to afford a jambia with a handle made of genuine rhino horn. As oil prices went up, though, Yemen (among other countries) was flooded with income from the sale of fossil fuels, and the demand for rhino-horn-handled jambias skyrocketed.
Jambias are not the only reason rhinos have been slaughtered. In addition to various ornamental products, rhino horn is valuable in TCM as a fever-reducer. When actually tested it seemed to reduce fever in rats, and Saiga horn had about the same efficacy, although author Richard Ellis rightly notes in his book No Turning Back that “Asprin and ibuprofen, for which no animals have to die, would probably work just as well.” In India rhino horn was used as an aphrodisiac, but expensive prices caused practitioners to stop prescribing it. These pressures, along with others, ultimately drove the rhino population down so low that horns were rare even within illegal trade, and demand kept going up. A substitute had to be found.
The horns of the Saiga, the species only recently recovered from population declines in the early to mid-20th century, were actively endorsed by the World Wildlife Fund as a substitute for rhino horn (also see here and here. Strangely, while the WWF is one of the groups responsible for the crash of Saiga populations, they make no mention of their actions on their website, their efforts of helping the Saiga since 1994 being extolled rather than their responsibility for the near-eradication of the animals. Nevertheless, the political destabilization of Russia and other areas in which the Saiga lived made regulation near impossible, and while some researchers claim that the plains were once “blackened” with Saiga, there are probably less than 50,000 of the animals left throughout their entire range (the Mongolian Saiga, a subspecies, being reported as having a population of less than 1,300 in a 1999 paper by Lushchekina et al. in the journal Oryx).
Indeed, the tale of the Saiga is one of the greatest tales of ecological mismanagement in history, and its implications can still be felt today. Ellis, again in No Turning Back, tells us how it is unlikely that Saiga were as well-established by the time the WWF endorsed hunting Saiga as some conversationalists claim;
By the time of the Soviet Revolution, there were only a few thousand saigas left. To forestall their total eradication, the Soviets protected them in Europe in 1919 and in Soviet Central Asia in 1924. In the 1950s commercial harvests of saigas by local groups began.
Strangely, Saiga was not especially well-established in TCM until recently. Earlier texts like the 1597 text Chinese Materia Medica having no mention of the Saiga, but the 1989 Rare Chinese Materia Medica, and the ground-up horn of the male Saiga can be used to;
…check hyperactivity of the liver and relieve convulsion, treat the up-stirred liver wind, infantile convulsion and epilepsy; calm the liver and suppress hyperactivity of the liver-yang; it is efficacious in the treatment of dazzle and vertigo due to hyperactivity of the liver-yang; it improves acuity of vision, cures headache and conjuctival congestion; clears away heat and toxic material; and can be used to treat unconsciousness, delirium, and mania in the course of epidemic febrile disease.
So it does seem that the Saiga has been a more recent alternative to other traditional remedies, gaining the status of an “ancient treatment” only towards the end of the last century (although I am no expert on TCM and there could be earlier references than the ones mentioned by Ellis). As you probably have guessed by now, though, the major problem in Saiga conservation is that it is the males who are constantly targeted, much of remaining populations being females. This greatly reduces the amount of offspring that are likely to be produced, as well as marking a steep drop-off in genetic diversity and possibly even fitness in the species, the Saiga going through two near-extinctions in less than 100 years.
Male Saiga skull. Note the large shelf in front of the large nasal opening. From Sokolov, Mammalian Species, No. 38, Saiga tatarica (May 2, 1974), pp. 1-4
While the earlier near-extinction of the Saiga typically gets less attention than the more recent run on their horns, I feel that it echoes recent policies in the United States to remove wolves and other animals from protection; when stocks seem to approach levels that are barely adequate, many want to open up hunting again when the animals should actually be left alone to reestablish themselves and their genetic diversity. While some are optimistic about the recovery of Saiga, I do not share the same hope that they do. Even if raw numbers of Saiga continue to rise, I worry that the decreased genetic diversity will make them more susceptible genetic problems caused by inbreeding and disease epidemics, one “bad day” in an ecological sense being able to wipe the species out.
I would be remiss, however, if I attributed the problems of Saiga conservation entirely to hunting. As I just suggested, disease and parasites can be an important factor in terms of whether populations die off or not, something that can not be planned for by merely making sure there is more of the animals next season. In 1992, Dukes, et al. published a study that showed that paratuberculosis (or Johne’s Disease) was transmittable from domestic sheep to captive Saiga and back again. Even more recently (Morgan et al, 2005) it has been found that Saiga pick up many of the parasitic worms that also infect grazing livestock along their range, both suffering from the parasites and also allowing them to spread further. Global climate change may also adversely affect the Saiga, the Saiga depending on local climatic cues to dictate their migrations. Heavier snowfall/harsher drought may cause them to have to move to new habitats or be decimated, and at present it is unknown whether they’d be able to cope with ecological changes associated with the current warming trend.
In all, things are not looking too good for the Saiga. While there has been a ban on the trade of products made from them and conservation agencies are trying hard to preserve this species, I believe that it not exists in a weakened state, which (despite population size) will make it more susceptible to extinction. Given enough time the species may recover fully, but in my own view this has “heath hen” written all over it, a species that seemed to recover until disease, predation, and weather changes were too much for the remaining birds in New England to handle. I am not suggesting that we say the Saiga is a lost cause; far from it. What I am recommending is that we actually learn something from the terribly mistakes we’ve made with this species, and stop thinking that merely because populations increase it somehow equals immediate species stability.