Last modified on January 19th, 2018 at 8:05 pm

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How Did 200,000 Saiga Antelopes Just Drop Dead in a Matter of Three Weeks in Kazakhstan?

More than 60 percent of the world’s saiga antelope population died over a period of only three weeks between May and June of 2015 | an international team researching the mass death of the endangered species have apparently solved the mystery

How Did 200,000 Saiga Antelopes Just Drop Dead in a Matter of Three Weeks in Kazakhstan?

Last updated on January 19th, 2018 at 08:05 pm

A team of international researchers has published the findings of its study into the death of more than 200,000 saiga antelopes in the journal “Science Advances”

In May and June of 2015, the endangered saiga antelope (Saiga tatarica) died in the hundreds of thousands in Kazakhstan, baffling scientists the world over.

The authors of the paper published in the journal on Wednesday, have attributed the cause of the mass die-off to a condition called ‘hemorrhagic septicemia’ which is caused by the Pasteurella multocida type B bacteria.

Their findings show that the bacteria outbreak was brought about by a couple of days of unseasonal high temperatures and humidity experienced in the region at the time. While the fluctuation was just marginal, its effects were devastating on the already endangered antelope species.

“I had never seen anything like it,” Richard Kock – wildlife veterinarian and UK’s Royal Veterinary College professor, who is also the first author of the paper – told ‘The Verge.’ “It was very concerning because it was so unnatural, outside of the realm of my experience.”

It must be mentioned that the 2015 mortality event was not the first of its kind; similar mass die-offs of the species were witnessed in May 1998 when 270,000 saiga antelopes died and in May 2010, 12,000 animals were lost to the epizootic disease.

Researchers were able to piece together the historical data of similar mass mortality events starting from the 1980s and came to the conclusion that unusually hot and humid weather caused the bacteria, which otherwise lives harmlessly inside the antelope, to go berserk.

This effectively means that a warmer world would spell the doom for this critically endangered species that has survived since the days of the mammoth. Few more events like these can well bring about the animals total extinction.

Saiga antelopes, which somewhat reminds you of the alien character ALF in the 1980s sitcom of the same name, are mostly found in the grasslands of the Republic of Kalmykia in Russia and in the Ural, Ustiurt and Betpak-Dala regions of Kazakhstan.

Uncontrolled hunting drove the Chinese and southwestern Mongolian populations of the species to extinction.

Professor Richard Kock, Professor in Emerging Diseases lead researcher at the Royal Veterinary College, said: 

“The recent die-offs among saiga populations are unprecedented in large terrestrial mammals. The 2015 Mass Mortality Event provided the first opportunity for in-depth study, and a multidisciplinary approach has enabled great advances to be made. The use of data from vets, biologists, botanists, ecologists and laboratory scientists is helping improve our understanding of the risk factors leading to MMEs – which was beneficial when another MME occurred, this time in Mongolia in 2017. Improved knowledge of disease in saigas, in the context of climate change, livestock interactions, and landscape changes, is vital to planning conservation measures for the species’ long-term survival”

Mr. Steffen Zuther, Project manager for Kazakhstan at the Frankfurt Zoological Society/Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity of Kazakhstan, said: 

“This research is not only the first of its kind through its complexity and interdisciplinary approach, it also helps in capacity building inside Kazakhstan and shaping the public opinion towards a more evidence-based thinking. MMEs are a major threat for the saiga antelope and can wipe out many years of conservation work and saiga population growth in just a few days. Therefore, understanding these MMEs, what triggers them and what can be done to combat them is extremely important to develop effective saiga conservation strategies. The triggering of such MMEs in saiga through weather conditions shows that not much can be done to prevent them occurring, and therefore how important it is to maintain saiga populations of sufficient size for the species to survive such catastrophes.”

Professor EJ Milner-Gulland, Tasso Leventis Professor of Biodiversity at Oxford University, said:

“This important research was possible due to a strong partnership between European universities, governmental and non-governmental Institutions in Kazakhstan, and international bodies such as the Food and Agriculture Organisation and Convention on Migratory Species, as well as generous funding from the UK government and conservation charities worldwide. During the more recent saiga disease outbreak in Mongolia, this international partnership was useful for supporting in-country colleagues, for example by providing emergency response protocols. It’s excellent to see the real-world value of research partnerships of this kind, and the great advances we have made in understanding disease in saigas thanks to such a productive collaboration.”

Professor Mukhit Orynbayev, Senior Researcher at the Research Institute for Biological Safety Problems, Kazakhstan, said:

“Kazakhstan plays a crucial role for the conservation of saiga, and its government takes this very seriously. This research is an important component of the government’s strategy for the conservation of the species, and we as researchers are grateful for the support we have received during our work. Through several years of work on this subject, the team of the RIBPS has gained experience in fieldwork and laboratory tests. This allows us to react quickly to any disease outbreak and get a diagnosis for it.”

Research paper

Title:  Saigas on the brink: multi-disciplinary analysis of the factors influencing mass mortality events

Published by: Science Advances

Authors: Richard Kock, Mukhit Orynbayaev, Sarah Robinson, Steffen Zuther, Navinder Singh, Wendy Beauvais, Eric Morgan, Aslan Kerimbayev, Sergei Khomenko, Henny Martineau, Rashida Rystaeva, Zamira Omarova, Sara Wolfs, Florent Hawotte, Julien Radoux, E.J. Milner-Gulland.

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