Kazakhstan’s endangered saiga antelope population took a huge blow last month, after more than 120,000 specimens died across the country. Scientists are still trying to figure out what caused the sudden collapse, but a respiratory disease is the most likely suspect.
“This loss is a huge blow for saiga conservation in Kazakhstan and in the world,” said Erlan Nysynbaev, Kazakhstan’s vice agriculture minister. About 90 percent of the planet’s saiga population lives in Kazahstan, and almost half of it died to illness since mid-May.
Zoology scientist Bibigul Sarsenova says the mysterious loss represents more than a third of the global saiga population. The urge to find what caused it is even greater, as Sarsenova argues the species cannot withstand another catastrophic event. “Should this happen again next year, they may simply disappear,” she explained.
The saiga antelope is already on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s “critically endangered” species. The saiga, who’s been around since the Ice Age, is faced with complete extinction should the researchers not find a treatment for the mystifying disease.
Since May 11, when the first dead antelope was discovered, more than 121,000 carcasses were found, spread across three of the largest areas of their usual habitat. Although bacterial infections are fairly common among the saigas, they are not deadly unless the animals already had a weakened immune system.
Kazahstan health officials believe a bacterial disease called Pasteurellosis is responsible for the near wipeout. Normally, the respiratory disease shouldn’t be harmful, at least not on such a large scale. What’s really puzzling the scientists is what crippled the immune system of the saigas in the first place.
Agriculture Ministry experts have already started analyzing samples of water, air and soil, hoping to get to the root of the problem. The mass deaths represent a global problem, so scientists from the World Organization for Animal Health, Britain and Germany have joined the Kazakh investigation.
Last month’s sudden deaths are the deadliest single event ever recorded that struck the saigas. About 12,000 antelopes were reported dead in 2010, while the previous cataclysmic incident dates back to 1984, when 100,000 antelopes perished in mysterious circumstances.
Kazahstan’s saiga population counted more than 1 million specimens in the 1990s. The species, famous for their bulbous nose and lyre-shaped horns, is as old as the saber-toothed tigers and the mammoths. However, reckless hunting and, later, poaching have dwarfed their numbers, as only 300,000 antelopes were left in the country prior to May’s deadly event.
On the bright side, having outlived the mammoths is no small feat, and the saigas are also renowned for their resilience. Bradnee Chambers, representing the UN-backed Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals, believes the population can recover quickly, as the saiga antelopes often have twins.
Image Source: Yibada