In May last year an event, which should have shocked the world, went pretty much unnoticed outside a few conservation organisations. In just a few weeks 200,000 saiga antelope, over 60% of the global population, died! The incident quickly ramped the status of the antelope up to critically endangered. Whilst it is not unusual to have mass die-offs of the saiga, in this case the numbers were unprecedented.
Scientists have agreed that the cause of the die-off, which mainly killed female and young antelope, was a bacterium causing haemorrhagic septicaemia. The population affected was situated in the Betpak-Dala region in Kazakhstan, where the herds were decimated by 90%. Steffen Zuther from the Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity of Kazakhstan (ACBK), who was in the field when the bacteria struck explained that, “When symptoms appeared, death was only a few hours away. The herds showed up to 100% mortality, leaving only a few groups of animals alive, consisting mostly of males, which separate from the big calving aggregations”.
“When symptoms appeared, death was only a few hours away.”
The bacteria responsible, Pasteurella, is known to cause mortality in other wild and domestic animals in grassland ecosystems. What makes this case unusual is that the level of mortality was up to 100% which has never been recorded in other species affected by the bacteria. This has prompted scientists to undertake intensive research to identify the possible causes of this anomaly which can be used to inform conservation action plans for the future.
It seems that, at the moment there is no simple solution to prevent future die-offs. Professor Richard Kock from the Royal Veterinary College comments, “There is no practical prophylaxis possible against haemorrhagic septicaemia in saiga given the species’ behaviour and the lack of a delivery mechanism for a vaccine. The likely stress caused by attempting to vaccinate them, either through aerial spraying of aerosolised vaccine or other means, may be as likely to lead to mortality as the disease itself. Once environmental triggers and co-factors are determined, the potential for intervention can be reassessed.”
The species unfortunately also faces additional pressures from poaching. Their horns are valued as a traditional Chinese medicine which drives illegal hunting and trading activities. E.J. Milner-Gulland from the Saiga Conservation Alliance (SCA) points out: “Continuing severe poaching is causing further losses, especially of males, which are shot for their horns, a highly priced agent in traditional Chinese medicine, which is used in several Asian countries.”
Saiga antelope have roamed the earth since the ice age so once shared the planet with the now extinct mammoths and saber toothed tigers! They used to range across the arid plains in eastern Europe, Asia and Alaska, but are now restricted to smaller ranges in Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Russia, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Their large noses may look odd but they are a highly sophisticated organ. It has a joint function; filtering out dust kicked up by migrating herds during the hot dry months and warming freezing air before it reaches their lungs in the winter.
“…we are grateful for this sign of hope.”
They are hardy animals, which are able to endure extreme temperatures, eat plants normally poisonous to other animals, swim when necessary and cover up to 120km per day during migration.
This resilience seems to be paying off. News from this year’s aerial census, carried out in April by the Ministry of Agriculture of the Republic of Kazakhstan indicates that they are showing signs of recovery. The data collected revealed an increase in numbers in the three main Kazakhstan populations, including the one in Betpak-Dala where 36,200 adult saigas were recorded. “This is far below the 242,000 animals we counted in spring 2015, before the mass-die off. But we are grateful for this glimpse of hope,” states Albert Salemgareyev from ACBK, co-leader of the Altyn Dala Conservation Initiative (ADCI).
Some comfort can be taken from one of the populations in the European part of Kazakhstan, west of the Ural River, which following a similar mass die-off in 2010 now has a population in line with its pre-2010 numbers of more than 70,000.
“The news about recovering saiga populations in Kazakhstan is a sign of hope after the catastrophic saiga mass die-off event in 2015,” said Bradnee Chambers, Executive Secretary of the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS).
Crucial to the survival of the saiga is the work done by the SCA and ADCI. The SCA is a network of researchers and conservationists who have worked together for over 15 years to study and protect the saiga antelope and the ADCI a large scale programme to conserve steppe and semi-desert ecosystems and their key species (mainly saiga antelope) in Central Kazakhstan.
The latest chapter in the story of the saiga is a cautiously optimistic one. It is now up to Governments and the public to support the SCA and ADCI in their efforts to write a positive postscript.
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