Take a deer’s body, attach a camel’s head, add a tapir’s snout, and you have a saiga—Central Asia’s odd-ball antelope with the enormous schnoz. Unfortunately, these animals are as endangered as they are strange looking. The problem is over-hunting. Now, according to a Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) study, the saiga’s migration routes are in jeopardy as well.
Conservationists tracked saiga with GPS collars in Mongolia and discovered a “migration bottleneck”—a narrow corridor of habitat that connects two populations. Local people herding livestock and increased traffic from trucks and motorcycles are pinching the saiga’s three-mile-wide corridor closed.
“Like other species of the steppes and deserts, saiga have avoided extinction by being able to migrate long distances as their habitat changed over time,” said Dr. Joel Berger, a WCS conservationist and professor at the University of Montana. “Given the uncertainty of how global climate change might affect specific regions, and how and where species might persist, prudent conservation strategies must take into account the movements of highly mobile species like saiga.” The Mongolian government, which participated in the study, has already expressed interest in protecting the migration corridor.
Saiga once roamed in Alaska and the Yukon but vanished in North America after the last Ice Age. Today, they inhabit only isolated pockets of Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kalmykia, Kazakhstan, and Mongolia. Numbering an estimated one million animals just 20 years ago, the population has plummeted by 95 percent, largely due to poaching for horns used in traditional Chinese medicines and competition with livestock.
Standing less than two feet at the shoulder and weighing about 50 pounds, the small antelope is best known for its large nose. The function of the saiga’s unusual proboscis is not clear, but it may warm or filter air during Mongolia’s frigid winters and notorious dust storms.