Mass deaths of endangered antelope stumps scientists MAY 29, 2015 nytimes.com
At least 120,000 of the animals have died in Kazakhstan since mid-May. Environmental and biological factors could be at play, but the exact cause is a mystery.
The saiga, a critically endangered Asian antelope species, has been decimated by a mysterious, fast-moving disease. In the past two weeks, more than third of all saigas have been killed, conservationists have found.
The cause of the outbreak is unknown, but scientists believe it is always fatal.
“I’m flustered looking for words here,” said Joel Berger, a senior scientist at the Wildlife Conservation Society. “To lose 120,000 animals in two or three weeks is a phenomenal thing.”
Before the end of the Ice Age, saiga lived over a vast range stretching from England to Alaska. After the climate warmed, they continued to thrive on the steppes of Central Asia.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, however, the saiga population fell by more than 95 percent. Poachers were mainly responsible, killing the animals to sell their horns in China for use in traditional medicines.
Earlier this month, Aline Kuehl-Stenzel, the terrestrial species coordinator of the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals, an environmental treaty overseen by the United Nations, received a report from the Kazakhstan government that hundreds of saiga had suddenly died, including many mothers with nursing calves. The death toll has continued to climb ever since.
Many species of grazing mammals suffer periodic die-offs, which can be caused by drought or viruses such as rinderpest. But because the saiga population is so reduced, the current die-off has claimed a huge proportion of the species.
“The scale is absolutely unprecedented,” said Dr. Kuehl-Stenzel.