Scientists are reporting that more than 125,000 endangered saiga antelopes, by some estimates a third of the global Saiga population, have been wiped out over the last two weeks in a die off in Kazahkstan that the United Nations Environment Program has called “catastrophic”.
UNEP experts have said the mass antelope deaths are likely due to “a combination of biological and environmental factors.”
Environmentalists note that a Russian rocket loaded with toxic fuel exploded in the atmosphere above Kazahkstan in mid May, and that earlier saiga deaths in 2012 were also suspected to be related to failed launch from the ex-Soviet Baikonur cosmodrome although they were officially blamed on a bacterial infection.
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Details on the saiga antelope die off
Researchers have not yet been able to identify the exact nature of the pathogen that has killed off entire herds, but their initial findings point suggest an infectious disease, possibly caused by one or more toxic bacteria.
Moreover, any infections are likely to have been worsened by recent rains that have made the antelope less able to cope with diseases.
“Unseasonal wetness may have been something that lowered their immunity to infection but until we do more analysis we will not know anything for sure,” Steffen Zuther of the Altyn Dala Conservation Initiative told AFP in an interview.
However, the rate of the deaths among the antelope that inhabit the steppes of Kazahkstan is truly staggering.
“A one hundred percent mortality for the herds affected is extraordinary,” noted Richard Kock, a professor at the Royal Veterinary College in London who recently returned from a research trip to Kazakhstan. “We are dealing with creatures that have fairly low resilience.”
Experts point out that more than 90% of the world’s saiga population lives in Kazakhstan, where the government has supported the species’ population growth and instituted anti-poaching laws. Before the recent deaths, it was estimated that as many as 250,000 to 300,000 saiga were living worldwide spread out across five Asian nations.
Consequences of the recent saiga antelope die off
Assuming that the episode is over, scientists estimate that it will take at least 10 years for the antelope population to recover from this unprecedented die off.
Zoologists and environmentalists are also hoping that other diseases that have raged in nearby areas, such as the morbillivirus epidemic that ravaged China in 2014, do not hit the sensitive saiga population.
Another concern is a rise in poaching for the animal’s horn, which is used in Chinese medicine, a huge problem after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but that had slowed down until recently.
Of note, Kazakhstan has banned hunters from killing saiga until 2021, and the law calls for penalties of up to five years in prison for those caught poaching.
Statement from Kazahkstan minister
“This loss is a huge blow for saiga conservation in Kazakhstan and in the world,” Kazakhstan’s vice agriculture minister Erlan Nysynbaev commented in a statement published this week by the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (a UN organization). “It is very painful to witness this mass mortality.”