More than 120,000 saiga antelope — nearly 50 percent of the population worldwide — have died in Kazakhstan, and scientists still don’t know why.
Kazakhstan’s vice agriculture minister Erlan Nysynbaev said in a statement, “This loss is a huge blow for saiga conservation in Kazakhstan and in the world,” adding, “It is very painful to witness this mass mortality.”
Prior to this massive die-off, which happened in just the last two weeks, the saiga population had hovered around 250,000. Nearly 90 percent of the animal’s population live in Kazakhstan and is currently listed as critically endangered.
According to reports, two bacterial pathogens, Pasteurella and Clostridia, have been found in all of the animal carcasses, which could be causing the mass casualties. However, according to the BBC, these pathogens are naturally found in the antelope so something else may have been suppressing the animal’s immune system.
Richard Kock from the Royal Veterinary College in London, told the BBC that once the animal begins to show symptoms, “They get into respiratory problems, they can’t breathe easily.
They stop eating and are extremely depressed; the mothers die and then the calves are very distressed and then they die maybe one or two days later.”
According to Nature, the saigas are “known to be prone to massive, as yet unexplained die-offs. These usually occur when the females come together to calve in the spring,” which is exactly what is happening this time around.
Richard Kock, a wildlife veterinarian at the Royal Veterinary College in Hatfield, UK, told Nature that he flew to Kazakhstan last month to assist with efforts to make sense of the devastation. He noted, “We had a herd of 60,000 aggregated and they all died. That is extraordinary.”
The saiga, which normally lives for 6-10 years and is about the size of a goat, have been hailed as a conservation success. In 2003 the number of saiga left in the wild was thought to be around 20,000.
After incredible efforts made by conservationists the number pushed back up to the 250,000 mark, before May’s devastating deaths. At their peak in 1993, there were more than 1 million saiga roaming free in Kazakhstan, according to Discovery.
Beyond biological threats, the saiga is also under siege from poachers who are after the animal’s horn- a prized possession in Chinese medicine.
Maria Karlstetter, Saiga Program Manager at Fauna & Flora International, told National Geographic in an e-mailed statement in 2013, “While the recent increase in saiga numbers is encouraging, it has also resulted in an increased poaching pressure. With saigas becoming more abundant again, hunting has become more easy and thus lucrative, [since] less fuel has to be spent in search of the animals and more males can be killed at one go.”
What’s worse, National Geographic explained, is that the saiga’s horn only became popular after some conservation groups encouraged hunters to go after its horn instead of hunting and poaching endangered rhino horns.
Scientists are now heading to more remote locations to learn more about the herds and why this massive population collapse is happening.
These endangered animals need our help. Humans are primarily responsible for their demise due to hunting and habitat loss, so we should do everything we can to ensure they don’t go extinct after this massive loss.