A male saiga. Photo by: Seilov/Creative Commons 3.0.
No one knows what’s killing them, but scientists estimate that almost half of the world’s saiga (Saiga tatarica) have perished since May 10th. To date, researchers on-the-ground unofficially estimate that 120,000 saiga have died in Kazakhstan from what appears to be a wildly virulent disease, although no cause has been ruled out. Saiga are bizarre-looking, Ice Age antelopes that once roamed Central Asia in the millions, but are now listed as Critically Endangered.
“It’s very dramatic and traumatic, with 100 per cent mortality,” UK veterinarian Richard Kock, who has traveled to Kazakhstan to help, told New Scientist. “I know of no example in history with this level of mortality, killing all the animals and all the calves.”
Kazakhstan’s Agriculture Ministry said they believe the saiga-killer may be a bacterial infection known as pasteurellosis. However, saiga-expert, E.J. Milner-Gulland with the Saiga Conservation Alliance (SCA), was not fully convinced.
“The fact that you are getting positive reports of Pasteurella doesn’t mean the bacterium is the underlying reason the animals are dying,” she told Radio Free Europe. “[The bacteria] is there naturally and it’s a kind of opportunistic.”
Research are also looking at several other disease possibilities, including mosquito-borne illness.
Only a few decades ago, there were millions of saiga, but the fall of the Soviet Union led to massive poaching. The population dropped to only around 20,000 animals at the beginning of the century, but then with intensive conservation efforts the saiga started to see a comeback. Until last month, the SCA estimated that the total population was 260,000 with the bulk of them in Kazakhstan.