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Switch to Forum Live View Sudden and Massive Die-Offs Endanger Kazakhstan Antelopes
3 years ago  ::  May 31, 2015 - 2:46PM #1
Posts: 14,591

The sudden deaths of tens of thousands of endangered antelopes in Kazakhstan over the past 2 weeks have left scientists scrambling for answers and conservationists worried about the animal's future.

More than 120,000 rare saiga antelopes — more than a third of the total global population — have been wiped out in a devastating blow that the United Nations Environment Programme has called "catastrophic".

Scientists are struggling to identify the disease that has felled entire herds, but say findings point towards an infectious disease caused by various bacteria.

Kazakhstan's prime minister has set up a working group including international experts to establish reasons for the deaths and oversee disinfection of lands in the regions where the saiga died.

UN experts said the mass deaths come down to "a combination of biological and environmental factors". 

Any infections have likely been exacerbated by recent rains that have made the antelopes 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 said.

The rate of the deaths has staggered those who have studied the species.  "A 100% mortality for the herds affected is extraordinary," professor Richard Kock from the Royal Veterinary College in London said.  "We are dealing with creatures that have fairly low resilience."

The sudden spate of deaths has come as an upset to conservationists, who had hailed the prosperity of saiga antelope herds as a conservation success.

Before the first reports of mass deaths in mid-May, saiga numbers in Kazakhstan had exploded from an estimated 20,000 in 2003 to the more than 250,000.  In 1993, there were more than 1 million saigas, mostly concentrated in the steppe land of Kazakhstan, neighbouring Russia, and Mongolia.

The susceptibility of the population since then has raised extinction fears and the saiga is listed as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Scientists have estimated that it will take a decade for the antelope numbers to recover from the recent deaths.

Herds that have not yet been struck down are thought to be safe for the moment, but scientists are hoping the animals can avoid the threat of even more potent diseases, such as the morbillivirus, an epidemic of which swept across neighbouring China last year.

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3 years ago  ::  May 31, 2015 - 3:13PM #2
Posts: 14,591

In the past 2 weeks, more than 1/3 of all saiga have died.

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 2 or 3 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 Central Asian steppes.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, however, the saiga population fell by more than 95%.  Poachers were mainly responsible, killing the saiga to sell their horns in China for use in traditional medicines.

In 2006, the 5 nations where saiga still survived — Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Russia, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan — signed a memorandum of understanding to conserve the saiga.  Anti-poaching measures have helped the population recover from less than 50,000 to about 250,000 before the current die-off.

But earlier this month, the terrestrial species coordinator of the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals, an environmental treaty overseen by the UN, 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.  Even though many species of grazing mammals suffer periodic die-offs, the scale is absolutely unprecedented in this case because the saiga population is so reduced to begin with.

Scientists examining the dead animals, and performing necropsies on 15 of them, found that the animals were infected with two species of deadly bacteria — Pasteurella and Clostridium.  They also found that once the disease struck a herd, it killed every animal.  It is an extraordinary thing to get 100% mortality like that.

Some scientists remain unconvinced that the bacteria are the fundamental cause of the die-off.  Both species of bacteria are present in healthy animals and become lethal only when the animals grow weak.  But scientists have observed that the saiga died so quickly from their infections that they could not have spread the bacteria to other animals.

So they’re investigating other factors that may have triggered the die-off, including the possibility of an unknown virus.  It could take 3 or 4 weeks to isolate any agent in the necropsy tissues.

Scientists are also looking at whether and how environmental changes may have put stress on the saiga.  Heavy rainfall this year may have altered the ecology of the steppes, disrupting their food supply, for example.

Central Asia has also experienced heavy chemical pollution over the decades from both factories and farms.  And there has beent speculation that the saiga were poisoned by fuel from Kazakhstan’s rocket program.  In any case determining whether the environment contributed to the die-off may take years.

On Thursday, the convention issued a statement saying that “the mass die-off has come to an end.”  But there are unconfirmed reports that more saiga are dying.  So the die-off may not be over.

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3 years ago  ::  Jun 01, 2015 - 2:03PM #3
Posts: 17,597

How sad!  I hope the deaths can be stopped.

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3 years ago  ::  Jun 01, 2015 - 3:47PM #4
Posts: 11,236

I wonder if the survivors are immune. If so, it would be an interesting example of fast evolution.

"If you aren't confused by quantum physics, you haven't really understood it."
― Niels Bohr

"As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain, as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality."
-- Albert Einstein

"If one is going to engage with the primordial forces of darkness, one must expect a bit of social awkwardness."
-- Penny Dreadful, season one, episode two
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3 years ago  ::  Jun 16, 2015 - 10:01PM #5
Posts: 14,591

This thread was moved from the Hot Topics Zone.

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