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Cat­a­strophic col­lapse of Saiga antelopes in Cen­tral Asia

pub­lished 05 June 2015 | mod­i­fied 05 June 2015

Saiga antelope deadMore than 120,000 saiga ante­lope have been con­firmed dead in cen­tral Kaza­khstan, rep­re­sent­ing more than a third of the global pop­u­la­tion. This is a major blow for con­ser­va­tion efforts given that saigas have in the past ten years only just started to recover from a global pop­u­la­tion size of less than 50,000 ani­mals fol­low­ing a 95% crash in numbers.

Pre­lim­i­nary analy­sis indi­cates that a com­bi­na­tion of envi­ron­men­tal and bio­log­i­cal fac­tors is con­tribut­ing to this cat­a­strophic event, which has seen four large birth aggre­ga­tions of this crit­i­cally endan­gered ante­lope erad­i­cated since mid-​May this year. Pri­mar­ily moth­ers and calves are amongst the car­casses — not a sin­gle ani­mal sur­vived in the affected herds.

This loss is a huge blow for saiga con­ser­va­tion in Kaza­khstan and in the world, given that 90% of the global saiga pop­u­la­tion is found in our country.
Erlan Nysyn­baev, Vice Min­is­ter of the Min­istry of Agri­cul­ture of Kazakhstan »

It is very painful to wit­ness this mass mor­tal­ity,” said Nysyn­baev. “We estab­lished a work­ing group that includes all rel­e­vant experts, includ­ing inter­na­tional ones, and are deter­mined to iden­tify the causes and under­take all pos­si­ble efforts to avoid such events in the future.”

At the request of Kaza­khstan, the Sec­re­tariat of the Con­ven­tion on the Con­ser­va­tion of Migra­tory Species of Wild Ani­mals (CMS) dis­patched an emer­gency mis­sion last week with experts from the Royal Vet­eri­nary Col­lege in the United King­dom and the Food and Agri­cul­ture Orga­ni­za­tion to assist on the ground with post-​mortem exam­i­na­tion, analy­sis and to con­tribute to the work­ing group.

CMS Exec­u­tive Sec­re­tary, Brad­nee Cham­bers said “Author­i­ties in Kaza­khstan are respond­ing quickly to this dis­as­ter and are work­ing hard to solve the mys­tery behind this mass saiga die-​off. I am pleased that the inter­na­tional expert mis­sion we were able to send, at very short notice, is now con­tribut­ing to these efforts”.

Accord­ing to infor­ma­tion received from the mem­bers of the CMS expert mis­sion, it is becom­ing clear that two sec­ondary oppor­tunis­tic pathogens, specif­i­cally Pas­teurella and Clostridia, are con­tribut­ing to the rapid and wide-​spread die-​off. How­ever, the hunt for the fun­da­men­tal dri­vers of the mass mor­tal­ity con­tin­ues since these bac­te­ria are only lethal to an ani­mal if its immune sys­tem is already weakened.

Experts are work­ing around the clock to inves­ti­gate the impacts in terms of wildlife health of the rel­a­tively high rain­fall observed this spring, the com­po­si­tion of the veg­e­ta­tion and other poten­tial trig­ger fac­tors includ­ing a suite of viruses. None of the data analysed to date indi­cates that rocket fuel is related to the mass die-​off. Fresh lab­o­ra­tory results are becom­ing avail­able every day,” says Aline Kühl-​Stenzel, Ter­res­trial Species Offi­cer at the UNEP/​CMS Sec­re­tariat, who has been sup­port­ing the expert mis­sion remotely from the Convention’s head­quar­ters in Bonn, Germany.

Kaza­khstan has been actively imple­ment­ing the CMS Mem­o­ran­dum of Under­stand­ing con­cern­ing Con­ser­va­tion, Restora­tion and Sus­tain­able Use of the Saiga Ante­lope (Saiga MOU), not least through estab­lish­ing new pro­tected areas and anti-​poaching patrols. Other part­ners that have signed the MOU, namely the Frank­furt Zoo­log­i­cal Soci­ety and the Asso­ci­a­tion for the Con­ser­va­tion of Bio­di­ver­sity of Kaza­khstan (ACBK) have been pro­vid­ing funds, as well as tech­ni­cal and logis­ti­cal sup­port for the emer­gency response, includ­ing the CMS expert mis­sion. The Saiga Con­ser­va­tion Alliance, another part­ner of the MOU, has pro­vided sci­en­tific input.

Saiga antelope populationsTHE UNEP CMS expert mis­sion is in Kaza­khstan to help iden­tify the fun­da­men­tal dri­vers of the mass mor­tal­ity of Saiga Antelopes. Credit: UNEP.

The aer­ial sur­vey con­ducted as part of the national mon­i­tor­ing pro­gramme ear­lier this year esti­mated that the Betpak-​dala pop­u­la­tion num­bered approx­i­mately 250,000 ani­mals prior to this mass die-​off, which has there­fore halved the total pop­u­la­tion. It is likely that final esti­mates may extend beyond 120,000 dead saigas since the count­ing of car­casses by emer­gency response teams is con­tin­u­ing. It is how­ever becom­ing clear that the mass die-​off has come to an end and that sev­eral GPS-​collared ani­mals are still alive in herds that were not affected by the mor­tal­ity event.

Mass mor­tal­ity events are not unusual for saiga antelopes, with a case occur­ring as recently as 2010 with 12,000 dead ani­mals. How­ever, the scale of the cur­rent event is unprece­dented rel­a­tive to the total pop­u­la­tion size. Often these mass mor­tal­ity events occur in the birth period, when Saiga females come together in vast herds to all give birth within a peak period of less than one week.

Saiga antelopes often have twins and pop­u­la­tions are able to rebound quickly. Our hope is that if we can con­trol what is dri­ving these mass mor­tal­ity events as well as tackle the num­ber one threat to saigas — wildlife crime and poach­ing — pop­u­la­tions will be able to recover. Col­lab­o­ra­tion among all stake­hold­ers is vital. Kaza­khstan is lead­ing the way and I look for­ward to the Range States putting in place strong poli­cies at the CMS Saiga meet­ing,” said Chambers.

(Source: United Nations Envi­ron­ment Pro­gramme press release, 28.05.2015)

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