The Saiga antelope is a critically endangered antelope that once inhabited a vast area of the Eurasian steppe. This unusual antelope has a distinctive pair of closely spaced, bloated nostrils directed downward. The coat of these animals changes according to the season. In summer, it appears yellow to red, fading toward the flanks. In winter, the coat develops a pale, grayish-brown color, with a hint of brown on the belly and the neck. The ventral parts are generally white. Only males possess horns that are thick and slightly translucent. The horns are wax-colored and show 12 to 20 pronounced rings.
Today, Saigas are only found in one region in Russia (in the Republic of Kalmykia and Astrakhan Oblast) and three areas in Kazakhstan (the Ural, Ustiurt, and Betpak-Dala populations). A portion of the Ustiurt population migrates south to Uzbekistan and occasionally Turkmenistan in winter. These rare antelopes live in semideserts, steppes, grasslands, and possibly open woodlands where they may shelter during strong winds.
Saigas are very gregarious animals that form very large herds. They are active during the day and spend most of their time grazing in steppes and grasslands eating various plants, including some that are poisonous to other animals. Saigas are known for their extensive migrations across the steppes that allow them to escape natural calamities. These antelopes can cover long distances and swim across rivers, but they avoid steep or rugged areas.
The mating season starts in November when stags (males) fight for the acceptance of females. The winner leads a herd of five to 50 females. After a 5 months gestation period females come together in mass to give birth. Two-thirds of births are twins and the remaining third of births are single calves. The young are usually weaned at about 4 months age. Females become reproductively mature at 7-8 months and males start to breed when they are 2 years old.
The population of Saiga antelope fell drastically following the collapse of the USSR due to uncontrolled hunting and demand for horns in Chinese medicine. Saigas have been a target of hunting since prehistoric ages when hunting was an essential means to acquire food. The horns, meat, and skin of these animals have commercial value and are exported from Kazakhstan. Saiga horn, known as Cornu Antelopis, is one of the main ingredients in traditional Chinese medicine that is used as an extract or powder additive to the elixirs, ointments, and drinks. Their value is equal to the rhinoceros horn, whose trade was banned in 1993. Although hunting and trade are considered illegal, the horn products still can be found sold publicly and openly in a great variety of venues and businesses. Another serious threat to Saiga antelopes is habitat loss. Agricultural advancement and human settlements have been shrinking habitat areas of these animals since the 20th century. Occupants limited Saiga's passage to water resources and the winter and summer habitats. Saigas are also dependent on weather and affected by climate fluctuations to a great extent due to their migratory nature. Harsh winters with strong winds or high snow coverage disable feeding on the grass under the thick snow. Population size usually dramatically decreases after severe cold months. Moreover, high temperatures in the steppe region lead to springtime floods, in which saiga calves can drown.
According to the IUCN Red List, the total population size of the Saiga antelope in January 2018 was estimated at 164,600-165,600 individuals or 123,450-124,200 mature individuals; these include 154,600 individuals in Kazakhstan, 5,000-6,000 individuals in Russia, and around 5,000 individuals in Mongolia. Currently, this species is classified as Critically Endangered (CR) on the IUCN Red List and its numbers today are decreasing.