Saiga Antelope

Saiga antelope (Saiga tatarica) is an ungulate species living in the wild arid and semi-arid steppe of the central Asia. It has two sub-species, one is Russian sub-species (S. tatarica tatarica) and the other is Mongolian (S. tatarica mongolica). The most notable features of the Saiga antelopes are its inflatable nose, so people in China also name it as ‘Gaobi Antelope’ (‘Gaobi’ in Chinese means inflatable and high). Straight horns are the other inimitable features of the saiga. Only males have the horns with average length of 20-40cm.  

The popular name of saiga horn in Chinese is ‘Lin Yan Jiao’ and the pharmaceutical name is Cornu Antelopis. It is as famous and valuable as musk, pilose antler and rhino horn, the four most-renowned animal medicine materials in TCM. The text record of using ‘Lin Yan Jiao’ may trace back to the ‘Shengnong Bencao’ (Divine Husbandman's Classic of the Materia Medica) 2000 years ago. In TCM, the properties of saiga horn are identified as salty and cold.

According to those papers, more than 30 TCM prescriptions or patent medicines contain saiga horn. In ‘New-Edited Chinese Patent Medicine’ published in 2002, saiga horn is the main component of 18 kinds of medicines for detoxification, cold treatment and lung disease. In addition to medicine, people can use horns directly, cut them into powder or slices, and boil them in water. This decoction can either be taken together with other decoctions or separately.


The Saiga, once roamed on the semi-arid steppes of Central Asia in more than one million animals, has been suffering from the decreasing of population size of 95% over the previous 10 years, with population estimates believed to be below 40,000 by now. Its distribution is restricted to three populations (Saiga tatarica tatarica) in Kazakshastan, one population in Kalmykia, Russia, and two of S.t.mongolica in Mongolia. In China, the saiga population once occurred in the area of Junggar basin and Beita Mountains. However, there has been no field record referring to saigas’ occurrence from 1970s, indicating that the population of this species has been extinct in China. Therefore, the species has been listed in CITES Appendix II, CMS Appendix II, critically Endangered species of the IUCN Red List, and Chinese Class 1 protected animal list.


Conservation efforts of WCS

In view of threats that saiga faces in the wild and current demand of saiga horn from TCM, WCS China Program brought together government officials and Traditional Chinese Medicine specialists to seek for a win-win strategy for saiga conservation and TCM development. We have therefore identified the following framework of activities:

1. Trade monitoring and management

  • Trace saiga horn component in traditional medicine or patent medicine;
  • Monitor current trade status for saiga horns;
  • Promote the enforcement of saiga horns cross-border illegal trade;
  • Record current store amount of the saiga horns in the country, and monitor its price trends in TCM market.  
  • Evaluate applications for new medicines with the component of saiga horns, and to control yield of current prescriptions with saiga horns;
  • Limit the ability to include saiga horn into prescriptions only to senior TCM doctors.

2. TCM research

  • Develop alternative products by biosynthesis techniques to replace saiga horn component in TCM;
  • Develop a processing technique to improve the utilization ratio of saiga horn and decrease its total consumption amount;

3. Reintroduction and recovery

  • Reintroduce saiga into historical distribution area and facilitate the recovery of wild population;
  • Reintroduce saiga into current captive population for breeding and improve staff capacity;

4. Cooperation

  • Elaborate a systematic mechanism for saiga conservation from distribution areas to consumption areas by cooperation with different governments, institutes and NGOs;
  • Influence business behavior and promote large enterprises take part into to research of sustainable use of saiga horn with cooperation from governments and conservation organizations;  

5. Public awareness  

  • Raise public awareness on saiga conservation to reduce blind consumption of saiga horn.

WCS China thanks to our partnership with the Saiga Conservation Alliance has been engaged for several years in implementing such framework and specifically:

  1. Trade monitoring and evaluation on the saiga horn in the country;
  2. Translation and dissemination of ‘Saiga News’ to promote information sharing in the country and between China and other countries;
  3. Sensitization TCM groups about the Saiga conservation issue and influence public consumption behavior.

Conservation efforts of China

In order to protect TCM resources, the State department of PRC enacted ”Regulation for Wild Medicine Resource Protection” in 1987 and listed Saiga antelope as a highest-rank protected species. The State Health Department, in 1978, asked local institutes to conduct research on horns from Goitered gazelles and Mongolian gazelles as substitutes. The ‘Law of Wild Animal Protection of PRC’ was announced in 1988, in which saiga is also Class 1 protected species. In 1987, the State Forestry Administration launched a reintroduction and captivity project to recovery the saiga population in the country. Now, a breeding center in Gansu province keeps a small population of the saiga from that year. Both Gansu Province and Xinjiang Autonomy Area have plans to reintroduce wild saiga population again in the near future.

International Conservation efforts
Both at the 13th Conference of the Parties to CITES in October 2004 and at the World Conservation Congress in November 2004, Saigas were on the agenda and resolutions were passed urging all stakeholders to work together to halt the decline in saiga populations. Now, several projects have been launched in the coutries in saiga distribution area. The main projects include: ‘Saiga Conservation in Betpakdala (Kazakhstan)’, ‘Socio-economic survey in the critically endangered Saiga antelope range of Uzbekistan’, ‘Reproductive ecology of the saiga antelope’, and so forth. (Please see details in the ‘Saiga News’).


1) Poaching. Though local people also hunt saigas for food, horns have a higher value than that of meat, because of demand for the traditional Chinese medicine (TCM thereafter). It impulses local people to kill saigas, collected horns, and transport them to the Oriental markets. For instance, in Kazakshastan, the price of saiga horn was up to $100/kg, which is a considerable income according to local wage levels.

Because only the male saigas have horns, they became the main target in slaughters. The proportion of adult males in its population has been steadily declining from 1997 (Lushchekina and Struchkov 2001) The sex ratio in rutting seasons reached 1:30-106 (male : female), and this sexual skew has resulted in increasing of intra-female competition that appears to influence recruitment (Miller-Gulland 2003).Selective poaching caused destruction of the male saiga which may have overwhelmed the animals’ famed fecundity.

2) Heavy aridity. Because of Global Warming, the climate of arid steppe of the central Asia became worse and worse. The vegetation is degrading and biomass in the winter decreases gradually.

3) Increasing Human activities. In saiga distribution area, irrigated farming, man-made canal, large cistern and high-way are increasing. The construction has become barrier against saiga migration. A great number of young saigas died when they tried to pass those barriers.

4) Disease. The livestock in the saiga distribution area is also increasing and may infect the sensitive saigas with severe diseases. Some reports showed that people once found more than 50,000 saigas had been dead because of the mouth and hoof disease.

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WCS China Trade Program
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