Mass Die-Off Of Saiga Antelopes Halves Population Of This Endangered Species: What's Causing It?


Scientists and veterinarians in Kazakhstan have begun investigating the sudden death of tens of thousands of saiga antelopes in the country earlier this month.

According to reports, the death toll from the mass die-off has already reached 100,000 to 120,000 antelopes since the incident was first discovered by the agriculture ministry of Kazakhstan in May 12. This figure roughly translates to about 40 percent of the total population of saiga in Kazakhstan.

Animal conservationists from around the world have raised concerns about the mass deaths as the saiga antelope is considered to be an endangered species.

The Royal Veterinary College (RVC) in Hatfield in the United Kingdom has sent out a team of veterinarians to Kazakhstan on Friday to help find out what could have caused the death of the animals.

"It's very dramatic and traumatic, with 100 per cent mortality," Richard Kock, lead veterinarian from the RVC, said. "I know of no example in history with this level of mortality, killing all the animals and all the calves."

Initial investigations showed that the saiga antelopes die through difficulty in breathing and a severe case of diarrhea.

Kock and his team analyzed tissue samples from several dead antelopes retrieved by Kazakh scientists earlier. They were able to identify three possible causes of the mass deaths.

The first one is pasteurellosis caused by hemolytic septicemia. This highly fatal form of infection is most often seen in bison, cattle and water buffalo. The disease is usually transferred from one animal to another through direct contact with infected oral or nasal secretions.

Once infected, animals suffering from hemolytic septicemia can die within 8 to 24 hours.

It can affect young adults and older calves in areas where the disease is endemic, and the mortality and infection rates are variable. In non-endemic areas, the disease can occur at high mortality and infection rates, possibly reaching 100 percent.

The second possible cause is epizootic hemorrhagic disease, a sickness mostly seen in white-tailed deer, mule deer and pronghorn antelope in rare occasions. This viral disease is mostly transmitted through mosquito bites.

Kock said they have to conduct more tests on the samples to rule out the possibility of epizootic hemorrhagic disease.

The last one is toxemia caused by clostridia bacteria. This is when an animal becomes sick because of toxins in the blood produced by Clostridial organisms. These organisms are often ingested from contaminated food and they eventually populate the gastrointestinal tract of the animal.

The veterinary team hopes to receive a complete and comprehensive analysis of the laboratory before they can make any firm conclusions.

The widespread death of saiga antelopes is also being linked to the idea that most of the female antelopes gave birthed to calves with a one week period. This could have provided ideal conditions for sickness to spread from parent saiga to their young.

During the 1990s, the number of saiga antelopes in central Asia was estimated at more than a million. The population, however, has significantly dropped to around 260,000 in Betpak-Dala and other regions by 2014.

Photo: belgianchocolate | Flickr

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