Saving the Saiga

Two male saiga antelope spar in snow. Photo by Pavel Sorokin

Saiga antelope have distinctive noses, an adaptation that has helped them survive in extreme conditions. Photo by Valeri MaleevSaiga antelope, relicts surviving from the ice age, look more like Dr. Seuss characters than real animals. The saiga’s bulbous nose—its most noticeable characteristic and the one that gives it its cartoonish appearance—has helped this creature survive in some of the most extreme habitat on earth. Filled with bony structures, hair, and mucous glands, the enlarged nasal cavities help cool blood and filter dust in the summer, and in winter protect the animals’ lungs from bitterly cold air by acting as a warming chamber.

Saiga range historically spanned most of Europe and Asia, from the British Isles through central Asia to what is now Alaska. Its numbers reached into the millions. Today only about 50,000 individuals remain, restricted mostly to one location in Russia and three areas of Kazakhstan. Due in part to hunting for its horns, which are used in traditional Chinese medicine, saiga numbers have plummeted 95 percent in the last 15 years—the fastest recorded decline of a mammalian species. The saiga is classified as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

This newborn saiga antelope is just two days old. Photo by Kate SurzhokAlthough saiga have not been part of the Los Angeles Zoo collection (or any U.S. zoo) since the early 1990s, the Zoo hopes to help this little antelope make a comeback by donating funds to the Saiga Conservation Alliance (SCA)-Kazakhstan. This SCA branch monitors saiga populations to determine conservation efficacy by surveying poaching activities and the reasons behind them. Their studies help the government and other organizations plan new interventions to save this species from imminent extinction. Beginning this year, the L.A. Zoo, through the GLAZA Conservation Fund, will donate $3,000 annually through 2020 to the SCA.

—Bonnie Heather Holland