Significance of a Watering Place for Saiga After the Rut Season Studied in the Stepnoi Nature Reserve

A. Gilev, K. Karenina

The Stepnoi Nature Reserve is a protected area of a particular significance for the rut and calving of the Pre-Caspian population of Saiga Antelopes in Russia.  Saigas inhabit the sanctuary and the nearby regions of Kalmykia throughout the year. In this arid climate the provision of watering places that are not disturbed by human activities is particularly important.

Posted on CAMI website.

During the warm season, a large watering place fed by an artesian well in Stepnoi State Nature Reserve (Sanctuary) in the Astrakhan Oblast, Russia has a number of functions that are important for the conservation of the saiga antelope population in the north-western pre-Caspian region. In addition to being a source of drinking water, the well serves as a mineral lick (saigas consume wet salt soils along the banks), a resting place and a place for cooling during summer heat, and an epicenter of social contacts (Giljov & Karenina, 2015; Giljov et al., 2019). Open flat space surrounding the watering place, together with the aggregation of animals from different groups, provide optimal conditions for various types of interactions between individuals. Tournaments between males (both young and adults), herding of females by males, hierarchical interactions between adult females, social games of calves, interactions between calves and adults from other groups often take place here.

The role, including the social role, this watering place plays during the cold season had not been extensively studied. To get some information on this issue, researchers from the Department of Vertebrate Zoology, St. Petersburg State University, conducted observations just after the end of the rut from December 15 to December 25, 2021. Observations were carried out approximately from 6:00 to 16:00 from a stationary hide constructed by the reserve staff near the well. The hide was only 50 cm higher than the ground level because the main part of it was underground (a small height reduces the possible disturbance of saigas).

The main results of the observations indicated that the watering place is important for the recovery of males after the rut season. The watering holes were approached mostly by males and were used for drinking water, consuming minerals from the unfrozen soil under the water and for resting nearby. The authors suggest that access to a watering place is likely to increase the chances for survival of a Saiga male after the exhausting rut event. In contrast to the behavior of Saigas in the summer months,  social interactions were brief and rare.

The study was conducted with the help of the Stepnoi Reserve staff, in particular Mr. Kalmykov and Mrs. Kalmykova and the Saiga Conservaiton Alliance.

The whole version of the article in Russian and English can be found attached.