In early May 2015, news outlets reported about a large and mysterious die-off of the Saiga Antelope. Scientists have now discovered that the impact of the die-off was much worse than reported. Originally new outlets reported that an estimated 50,000-60,000 antelope died. This was a huge under estimation because now it is estimated that the population was reduced by over 90% after 211,000 animals perished. The cause of the die-off was a mystery for many months, but scientists now have a hypothesis to explain.
Profile of The Saiga Antelope of Central Asia
Saiga antelope (Saiga tatarica) populations of subspecies can be found in Kazakhstan, Mongolia, and a southern portion of Russia. These rare Central Asian antelope graze on grass and have a very unique humped nose. Males are distinguishable by their horns, as horns are absent in females. These animals travel in herds of 30-40 individuals and herds can join together during migration to form a super-herd of tens of thousands of individuals. While these animals find support by traveling in large groups, they still have encountered their share of problems from habitat and hunting, to disease outbreaks. In fact, after the break-up of the Soviet Union, the population in the Betpak-dala region was reduced to 50,000 from millions. It was not until 1994 that conservationist took action and the population grew from 50,000 to 257,000 by 2014.
Siaga Mass Mortality Events
Unfortunately, history tends to repeat itself if nothing is done in the meantime to prevent these events from repeating. The populations have greatly declined from the 1,250,000 animals in the mid-1970s to only around 50,000 today after the last mass mortality event. In less than 50 years we have lost 1,200,000 Saiga. In 1988, a similar event occurred and Pasterurella was the root cause of death for the Saiga that died. The cold snap and rogue bacteria killed about 73% of the Central Kazakhstan heard. There were also mass mortality events in 2010 when 12,000 Saiga died and in 2012 when 1,000 Saiga died. The species recovered in 2013-2014 and there were a quarter of a million by 2015 before the last mass mortality event that claimed the lives of over 200,000 Saiga in only two weeks.
In May of 2015, more than three quarters of the population was decimated world wide by the outbreak of a mysterious disease. The final estimation was much larger than previously calculated. 211,000 Saiga died during the month of May including 80% of the Betpak-dala population. It is astonishing to note that not every calf was counted so even this number is an underestimation. This has reduced the population to fewer than 50,000 individuals, reversing all of the hard work and effort that conservationists have put in over the past 20 years. Now the Saiga antelope are once more on the brink of extinction, if there are any mass mortality events that occur in the near future.
Scientists have come up with a hypothesis that can explain the mass mortality event.
When scientist examined dead animals, they found evidence of internal bleeding. Blood test revealed that the animals had a severe Pasteurella multocida and Clostridium
perfringens infections. These bacteria live in the gut of the Saiga and are normally harmless. Scientists believe that the erratic shifts in temperature weakened the animal’s immune system. During the event, the temperature difference between day and night was approximately 25 degrees. The unusually stormy spring weather and the drop in regional temperatures allowed the bacteria to thrive and produce endotoxins.
The timing of the year could have also played a role in reducing the animal’s immune system as well. The Saiga dropped their winter coats to prepare for the hot summer in May. Grass was newly sprouting during this time as well and required more energy to break down. Additionally, females were giving birth to calves and nursing newborns. All of these activities could pull energy away from their immune system, making them more susceptible to infection during time. The most susceptible to infection were mothers and calves and the infection was so severe that it could kill an animal in a matter of hours. Given these results, it is possible that these animals could go extinct in one year if another weather event triggers another mass die-off.
Is There Any Hope?
Although there is always hope when conservationists and scientists team up to save a species, right now the future looks bleak for the Saiga. There are three main reasons why.
1) Scientists believe that the mass mortality events are becoming more intense because the weather is less predictable and exacerbated by climate change resulting from air pollution. Other small hoof stock could also be at risk for similar fates, as their physiology are similar and if their normal gut flora remains unchecked, we could potentially see more die-off events in the future. Stephane Ostrowski, a wildlife health coordinator with the Wildlife Conservation Society stated in a prepared release that, “Mortality events that once had limited impact on the large global population now have the potential to drive the few remaining animals quickly to extinction.” There will come a point where a species cannot recover without the help of zoos, conservationists, and breeding programs. For the Saiga, that breaking point is getting closer and closer.
2) The mass mortality occurred this year during calving season. Because of this, there is a generation gap that will be created and the population will likely decline further before the number of individuals rise because there will not be enough
reproductively mature animals to increase the population. It is also possible that there may not be enough to have birthrates counteract the number of animals that die between now and the next few breeding cycle until the next generation is reproductively mature.
3) Illegal poaching of males is a great threat to the future of the populations. These antelopes are prized for their meat and poachers kill males for their horns. As with rhino horns, Saiga horns are used in traditional Chinese medicine to rid a patient of evil spirits and to reduce fever. This has greatly depleted the male population and coupled with the previous point, it puts a huge stress on reproduction and decreases the chance for the population to rebound quickly. There are not enough males to mate with females to produce the quick rebound needed to recover from the latest’s mass die-off.
It is too soon to tell if the populations can recover. As long as conservationists step in and possibly even implement a breeding program, the animals might have a chance. There is some promising news. The Mongolian subspecies (Saiga tatarica mongolica) has not experienced any mass mortality events. However, there are only a few thousand individuals remaining. Either they are lucky, or there is something that has helped prevent a die-off, whether it is that they are more protected in the location, or they have something about their physiology that different compared to the other subspecies. More research needs to be conducted to determine how these animals have been protected from a mass die-off event. That information could be used in conserving the other Saiga subspecies.
Hope also lies with breeding programs. The only two zoos that currently keep Saigas is Moscow Zoo and Askania-Nova in the Ukraine. There are some conservation centers that protect Saigas. Russia established Center for Wild Animals of Kalmykia (CWA) and has 800 acres of dedicated space for the Saiga. They are also currently developing the infrastructure for breeding programs and research to help boost the populations and ensure their survival. The Conservation Centers for Species Survival is partnering with them to build animal facilities, propagation and reproduction research infrastructure, and veterinary care. Their goal is to develop and to produce males that can be reintroduced into free-living herds and genetically managed captive hedge population. It is the only successful breeding program for the species in the world.
Although things look bleak for the Saiga, there is a lot of potential for the future of the species if these conservationists are fervent in their actions. We can all do our part and reduce our impact by doing the basics of recycling, re-using, conserving energy, and raising awareness that things need to change – just to name a few. Pollution is reeking havoc on many species and unless we change that, we can be assured that mass mortality events will continue and just get worse. We cannot afford to loose all of these species affected by pollution in a man-made sixth extinction event.
“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not!”
— The Lorax