With their fleshy noses and delicately curved horns, the unusual looking Saiga antelopes (Saiga tatarica) appear like a creature from another world.
Increasingly, it looks like they may not stay long in this world.
Decades ago many millions of saiga wandered the steppes and plains of central Asia. The fall of the Soviet Union nearly did the species in. The political collapse enabled rampant poaching of saiga for their meat and horns—the latter of which are used in traditional Chinese medicine—brought the species close to extinction. By 2010 there were only about 81,000 left.
They haven’t had it easy since then.
2010 was also the year of the first mass saiga-die off. That year, at least 12,000 saiga suddenly died in Kazakhstan, one of the few countries that still held populations of the critically endangered animals. Government officials blamed a lung infection called pasteurellosis for the die-off.
The next year, hundreds more saiga died. Again, pasteurellosis appeared to be the culprit.
In 2012 another 1,000 saiga died. This time, oddly enough, some local ecologists actually blamed the deaths on the nearby landing of a Soyuz capsule from the International Space Station. The real cause remained unexplained.
The cycle seemed to turn around in 2013. Despite the waves of death, saiga populations in Kazakhstan were reported to have actually increased to 137,000. Efforts to preserve saiga habitat and improve their ability to migrate seemed to have done wonders for this bad-luck species.
The population continued to increase. By early 2015 the total saiga population was—amazingly—estimated at more than a quarter of a million. Kazakhstan held about 200,000 of those animals, with the rest in Russia, Monglia and other nearby countries.
Not anymore, though.
This past spring the mass die-offs started again in Kazakhstan. This time it wasn’t 500 saiga. It wasn’t 1,000. It wasn’t 12,000.
It was more than 200,000.
More than 70 percent of the entire species died over the course of just two weeks, wiping out entire herds.
Worse still, the deaths occurred during calving season, meaning it could take generations for the species to recover.
The cause of these deaths, several months after they occurred, remains a mystery. Pasteurellosis again appears a likely suspect, but once more it hasn’t yet been proven. Conservationists meeting last week at the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS) in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, also discussed the idea that the mass mortality event could have been caused by changes in vegetation or weather.
“This shows the danger of allowing species to decline and the importance of disease as a risk factor,” Stephane Ostrowski, a wildlife health coordinator with the Wildlife Conservation Society, said this week in a prepared release. “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.”
Can the saiga be saved in the wake of these devastating losses? Delegates to the CMS meeting have now come up with a five-year working plan to address the multiple threats the species faces. The plan covers studying the animals’ health, addressing a recent uptick in poaching, and the rapid development of roads, railways and border fences that have started to cut off saiga migration and could limit their ability to move to greener pastures during harsh winters and dry summers. According to CMS representatives, specific actions planned between now and 2020 include altering—in some as-yet-undisclosed way—the border fence between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, stepping up national reporting, and addressing saiga health.
I’ve been following the saiga saga for more than five years now. At this point I admit to having a pretty fair amount of anxiety about what next spring will bring. Will it be good news or bad? Only time will tell.
Photos by Richard Reading courtesy of the Wildlife Conservation Society and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service