In a harrowing population collapse not seen perhaps since the dinosaur extinction, 120,000 (and counting) saiga antelopes have been reported dead across Kazakhstan. 120,000 amounts to 1/3 of the antelope’s total population, which dipped as low as 50,000 just 20 years ago due to heavy poaching following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Wildlife experts are unable to offer a clear explanation for the catastrophic collapse, noting that the final death toll will likely be higher.
“This loss is a huge blow for saiga conservation in Kazakhstan and in the world, given that 90% of the global saiga population is found in our country. It is very painful to witness this mass mortality. We established a working group that includes all relevant experts, including international ones, and are determined to identify the causes and undertake all possible efforts to avoid such events in the future,” said Erlan Nysynbaev, Vice Minister of the Ministry of Agriculture of Kazakhstan.
Perhaps most shocking is that the collapse only began mid-May, just a couple of weeks ago. The saiga give birth en masse, crowding into huge herds to give birth all at once. So far, four such herds have been affected by the plague, and in each case every single animal in the herd died. Mothers and their calves were the primary victims.
Early analysis suggests that two biological pathogens, Pasteurella and Clostridia, have something to do with the die-offs. Both pathogens are known to affect the saiga, but they cannot be the main drivers of the collapse – they typically only cause harm when an animal’s immune system is already weakened. Experts have not stated whether low genetic diversity could have made the saiga more vulnerable. Environmental factors may also be at play.
“Experts are working around the clock to investigate the impacts in terms of wildlife health of the relatively high rainfall observed this spring, the composition of the vegetation and other potential trigger factors including a suite of viruses. None of the data analysed to date indicates that rocket fuel is related to the mass die-off. Fresh laboratory results are becoming available every day,” says Aline Kühl-Stenzel, Terrestrial Species Officer at the UNEP/CMS Secretariat.
While mass die-offs are not unusual for the saiga antelopes, the scale of the latest one is unprecedented. Though response teams continue to tally up the bodies, scientists say that the collapse is officially over, citing GPS-tagged animals surviving in other herds. The hunting of saiga is illegal in Kazakhstan in an effort to ward off poachers who use their horns in traditional Chinese medicine. With any luck, the resilient animals will rebound just fine.
“Saiga antelopes often have twins and populations are able to rebound quickly. Our hope is that if we can control what is driving these mass mortality events as well as tackle the number one threat to saigas – wildlife crime and poaching – populations will be able to recover. Collaboration among all stakeholders is vital. Kazakhstan is leading the way and I look forward to the Range States putting in place strong policies at the CMS Saiga meeting,” CMS Executive Secretary Bradnee Chambers.