Svelte and lithe like a young filly the antelope bound across the plains of Africa and Asia. Delightful creatures they are too, but a few prefer not to hang around the savannah like a pretty meal ticket; the beautiful oryx of the Arabian desert, the adorable klipspringer of the kopje, the majestic semi-aquatic sitatunga of the African swamps… and the downright bally bizarre saiga of the Siberian steppe.
The critically endangered saiga live on the remote Siberian nether regions, though it is not thought to be because it is so self conscious of its outsized conk. You see that enormous nose is really rather handy out on the tundra. Inside it is very convoluted, as crooked as a line of Russian infantry, and as the cold winter air makes its epic journey through the saiga’s nostrils it warms up ready to enter the lungs. In the summer when the steppe is toasted by the baking sun it gets rather dusty, once again it is wonder schnoz to the rescue as all those folds filter out the dust.
The incredible tale of how the saiga became so rare actually starts in Africa. The rhino, as everyone knows, has been hunted to near extinction for its horn. Firstly by Sudanese males who used them as the handle for their jambiya daggers, and secondly for yours and my favourite bit of erudite thinking Traditional Chinese Medicine. Tests have indeed shown that rhino horn have anti-fever properties, a bit like aspirin or ibuprofen. Of course the Chinese find popping to a drug store to pick up a small pack for a pittance a bit of a chore. No… no… no… it is much easier to circumnavigate the globe where said drug will be strapped to the front end of the second biggest… and most grumpiest land mammal… a big bugger who doesn’t take kindly to being killed thank-you-very-much and will use said horn to protest about the whole shooting him dead thing… all in all an absolute snip at about $10,000 a kilo.
Anyway back to the snouty Saiga who at the time were extinct in China, yet were found in their droves across Russia. Indeed tens of thousands were hunted each year with no impact on their numbers. So some bright sparks had the idea that seen as though the saiga’s antlers had similar analgesic properties to the rhino horn then why not hunt these? Sadly these learned types didn’t bank on the potential market in a newly affluent China for a cheap new ‘rhino horn’. Their populations were decimated, from two million in the 1950’s to as little as 50,000 now. What rapscallions would do such a dastardly deed? Who would promote these wonderful creatures to be ground down by Asian quacks? Unbelievably it was the World Wildlife Fund, yes the conservation charity the World Wildlife Fund… to be fair it seemed like a good idea at the time, and it has undoubtedly taken the heat off the Rhino…. for which he is said to be rather grateful. Thankfully the WWF are now focusing their attentions at keeping this incredible chap and his magnificent conk on the planet.