One Third Of The World’s Saiga Antelope Population Died This Month: What Killed Them?

More than a third of the world’s population of saiga antelope, over 120,000 animals, have died during the past month in Kazakhstan, and no one knows exactly why.

Just a month ago, the steppes of Kazakhstan were home to 250,000 saiga antelope, as the Huffington Post reports. The species was widely considered a conservation success story, recovering from a low of just 50,000 animals, thanks to anti-poaching efforts and a 2006 memorandum of understanding that was signed by five nations (Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Russia, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan), designed to save the antelope. Now, however, the United Nations has confirmed that in excess of 120,000 saiga antelope have died, falling victim to what may be a highly contagious disease.

Dr. Aline Kuehl-Stenzel, the terrestrial species coordinator of an environmental treaty administered by the United Nations, received reports earlier this month that signaled the beginning of the saiga antelope die-off. Since then, according to the New York Times, the antelope death toll has continued to rise, claiming a startling percentage of the population.

“The scale is absolutely unprecedented,” Dr. Kuehl-Stenzel observed.

A group of scientists, including Dr. Richard A. Kock of the Royal Veterinary College, traveled to Kazakhstan to examine the saiga and perform necropsies on several of the antelope. They found that the antelope were infected with Pasteurella and Clostridium, two deadly species of bacteria, yet Dr. Kock doesn’t believe that either are responsible for the mass casualties. The infected saiga died too quickly to spread the bacterium to other antelope and both bacteria species can exist in healthy antelope, only turning into a threat when an animal is already weakened.

Chillingly, Dr. Kock and his colleagues also discovered that when a saiga antelope herd became infected with the mysterious disease, none in the group were spared.

“It is an extraordinary thing to get one hundred percent mortality,” he said.

As the saiga antelope have died across Kazakhstan, other theories have emerged to explain the unprecedented scale of their demise. As the Inquisitr previously reported, a number of conservationists have suggested that the mass antelope die-off could be linked to a nearby Cosmodrome where rockets carrying toxic fuel are launched into space. Earlier this month, one of those rockets failed during liftoff, and the full extent of effects from the explosion are not yet known. Dr. Kuehl-Stenzel, however, doubts that hypothesis for the saiga antelope’s demise.

It will take three to four weeks for the necropsies to isolate any potential agent, like an unknown virus, leaving researchers to fear that the unprecedented die-off of saiga antelope may not be finished.

[Image: Shutterstock]