Saiga antelopes in Kazakhstan are dying by the thousands from an illness that has baffled biologists. Over the course of just a few weeks, as many as 120,000 saiga antelopes have fallen prey to the mystery disease. Half of these endangered animals have already succumbed to the illness — with no end in sight.

Vast numbers of saiga antelopes – into the millions – once lived on the Eurasian steppe. Since that time, hunting and habitat encroachment by humans drove them down to around 250,000. The official number of deaths from the mystery disease sits at 85,000, although some wildlife experts estimate fatalities at 50 percent higher.

The disease results in death by extreme diarrhea and difficulty breathing. The first fatalities among antelopes in Kazakhstan were seen on May 10. Just a few days later, 27,000 of the endangered animals lay dead.

"It's very dramatic and traumatic, with 100 percent mortality. I know of no example in history with this level of mortality, killing all the animals and all the calves," said Richard Kock of the Royal Veterinary College.

Wildlife officials believe that Haemolytic septicaemia (HS) is the most likely cause of the widespread death. This is caused by an infection of the bacteria pasteurellosis, which can be fatal to bison, buffalo and some cattle, but it is usually harmless to other species. However, this is just one of three possible diseases that could be the culprit.

Epizootic haemorrhagic disease, a viral infection transmitted by mosquitoes, is another possibility. This is the most common disease among white-tailed deer, according to Kip Adams of the Quality Deer Management Association, and often results in dead deer found in forests.

The third – and least likely – possibility is infection of clostridia bacteria, leading to blood poisoning. Tests are currently being conducted in an effort to ascertain the source of the mysterious deaths.

Humanity may also be responsible for the massive die-off of antelope. According to Radio Free Europe, the Baikonur Cosmodrome – where rockets are launched into space – may be releasing a toxic fuel into the enviornment, killing off the animals.

The deaths "could be, of course, linked to ecology, as well as to the Cosmodrome," said Meirbek Moldabekov, deputy chief of the Kazakhstan's Space Agency.

Saiga antelopes are known for their sharp antlers and tubular snouts. Their fur and meat have been a traditional part of the local people's livelihood for centuries. As the Soviet Union collapsed, a burgeoning market for the horns of males arose, leading to widespread slaughter of the antelopes. Conservation efforts are currently working to protect the animals, which often migrate to China.

The animals give birth around this time of year, and mothers can easily pass diseases onto their offspring. Researchers speculate that this could be the reason why so many of the antelope died so quickly.

Photo: Frank Wouters | Flickr

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