The sudden deaths of tens of thousands of endangered antelopes in ex-Soviet Kazakhstan over the past two weeks have left scientists scrambling for answers and conservationists worried about the animal’s future.
More than 120,000 rare saiga antelopes — more than one-third of the total global population — have been wiped out in a devastating blow that the UN Environment Programme has called “catastrophic.”
UN experts have said that the mass deaths are attributable to “a combination of biological and environmental factors.”
Scientists have struggled to identify the exact nature of a disease suspected of killing entire herds, but say that findings point toward an infectious disease caused by various bacteria.
Any infections have likely been exacerbated by recent rains that have made the antelopes — 90 percent of which live on the steppes of central Asian Kazakhstan — less able to cope with diseases.
“Unseasonal wetness may have been something that lowered their immunity to infection, but until we do more analysis, we will not know anything for sure,” the Altyn Dala Conservation Initiative’s Steffen Zuther told reporters.
The rate of the deaths has staggered those who have studied the species — whose ancestors have inhabited the region since the ice age.
“A 100 percent mortality for the herds affected is extraordinary,” said Richard Kock, a professor at the Royal Veterinary College in London who recently returned from Kazakhstan. “We are dealing with creatures that have fairly low resilience.”
The sudden spate of deaths comes as a nasty shock, as up until recently the saiga antelopes — which can live for up to 10 years and are known for their protruding noses — had been seen as something of a conservation success.
Until the middle of this month, when the Kazakh Ministry of Agriculture began reporting the deaths, saiga numbers in Kazakhstan had rallied from an estimated 20,000 in 2003 to more than 250,000.
In 1993, there were more than 1 million saiga antelopes, mostly concentrated in the steppes of Kazakhstan, neighboring Russia and Mongolia.
The susceptibility of the population since then has raised extinction fears and the saiga is listed as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
While herds that have not already been struck down are thought to be safe for the moment, Kazakh Prime Minister Karim Massimov on Thursday set up a working group including international experts to establish reasons for the deaths and oversee disinfection of lands in the three regions where the saiga died.
“If there is one positive that has come from this, it is that the government has become very open to international channels of cooperation now,” Kock said.
However, scientists estimate that it would take a decade for the antelope numbers to recover from the recent deaths.
For now, they are hoping that the beasts can avoid even more potent diseases that have raged in nearby areas, such as the morbillivirus epidemic that swept across neighboring China last year, and other threats.
One of those is the rise in poaching for the animal’s horn — prized in Chinese medicine — which grew widespread following the collapse of the Soviet Union, but has slowed down since.
Kazakhstan extended a ban on hunting the saiga until 2021 four years ago and imposes penalties of up to five years in prison for poachers.
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