The Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity of Kazakhstan has seen a great loss that has left researchers baffled by the death of 60,000 Saiga antelopes in 4 days, with no known cause and only speculations left behind.
The Saiga antelope has been deemed as ‘endangered’ by the Union for the Conservation of Nature, who were at a 257,000 in 2014, with a few herds in Kazakhstan, one in Russia and another in Mongolia. They play an important environmental role in the more arid temperatures in the ecosystem of grassland steppe.
With the approach of winter and the fall of leaves, the Saiga help in preventing the dead plant life from decomposing, grazing and recycling the vitamins back to nature. The decrease in the number of dry leaves covering the ground to also prevent potential wild fires, but that seems to be an eliminated perk with the mass die off that has gone by unpredicted and unsolved.
Geoecologist Steffen Zuther was already monitoring a heard of Saiga antelopes in central Kazakhstan in May, observing their annual calving. A few deaths went off unreported, and as a simply matter of nature that was not out of the ordinary, according to Zuther. However, within four days, the entire herd of 60,000 were dead.
Veterinarians and conservationists have attempted to understand why or how such a vast amount of animals have simply perished within a matter of days, so far unheard of for any species. The problem seemed to have slowed down by June, but the questions remained what had killed all the antelopes, which were around half the country’s population.
A similar mass death of Saigas had happened before in 1988, when 400,000 died, though without much answers there either.
Fortunately, this time around, field workers were already there and ready to collect various samples that might help bring them closer to an answer. They gathered the herd’s activity to extensive detail, taking samples of their water resource, vegetation, ticks and other insects that might’ve come into contact, rocks they walked on, soil, pieces of the environment they might’ve touched within a span of months.
Additionally, researchers performed autopsies, and closely observed the behavior of the dying animals. Regardless, it seemed no clear answer has been given, except the fact that it seemed to hit the mothers first, and the young calves second.
Their strongest guess is reportedly centered around a bacterial infection spread through the mother’s milk, caused possibly by Pasteurella or Clostridia that led to extensive internal bleeding. However, Pasteurella is naturally found within Saiga antelopes, and does not normally harm them as hosts.
Zuther suggests that the cold winter might’ve compromised their immune systems, but that still remains conjecture at this point.
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