It started in May – a rapid, massive loss of life of one of the planet’s most endangered species of antelope.
When geoecologist Steffen Zuther and his colleagues arrived in central Kazakhstan to monitor the calving of one herd of saigas, a critically endangered, steppe-dwelling antelope, veterinarians in the area had already reported dead animals on the ground.
“But since there happened to be die-offs of limited extent during the last years, at first we were not really alarmed,” Zuther, the international coordinator of the Altyn Dala Conservation Initiative, told Live Science.
But within four days, the entire herd — 60,000 saiga — had died. As veterinarians and conservationists tried to stem the die-off, they also got word of similar population crashes in other herds across Kazakhstan. By early June, the mass dying was over. [See Images of the Saiga Mass Die-Off]
— Live Science (@LiveScience) September 2, 2015
But clues to what wiped out half of Kazakhstan’s saiga antelope in just a couple of weeks are now starting to emerge.
Scientists believe the deaths may have been caused by bacteria that normally live harmlessly in the animals’ bodies turning on them.
Professor Richard Kock, a wildlife veterinarian from the Royal Veterinary College in London, was part of the team that went to Kazakhstan to investigate the deaths.
He told Nature: ‘I have worked in veterinary diseases all my career and I have never seen 100 per cent mortality.
‘We had a herd of 60,000 aggregated and they all died. That is extraordinary.’
‘Epidemiologically, you cannot get a directly transmitted disease to kill a whole population in seven days… I’d say it’s a polymicrobial disease.’
For now, there are still thousands of healthy saigas in the world, but they are still an endangered species — thankfully, scientists will continue to investigate the specific cause of saiga deaths. Hopefully, they’ll find the answer soon.