With its beautiful spiral horns, big bulging eyes and distinctive large nostrils, the saiga antelope (Saiga tatarica) is one of the most recognizable wild animals of central Asia. Hunted to near extinction by the 1920s, the population managed to fight back, only to return to near extinction again after the collapse of the Soviet Union due to uncontrolled hunting for food and for their horns, which are used in Chinese medicine. Despite conservation efforts, another return of the saiga may not be possible. Since early May 2015, an estimated 120,000 or more saiga antelopes – half of the remaining population -- have mysteriously died in Kazakhstan. What is killing these unique creatures and can it be stopped before it’s too late?
According to veterinarians brought in from the Royal Veterinary College in Hatfield, UK, the deaths began on about May 10 and spread quickly because saiga females all calve in one week, lowering their resistance to infections and making it easy to pass them to the calves. The veterinarians offered some possible causes for the rapid and massive deaths: pasteurellosis – a bacterial respiratory infection, haemolytic septicaemia - a bacteria known to kill buffaloes, epizootic hemorrhagic disease – a mosquito-born infection, or toxemia caused by clostridia bacteria. None of the possibilities is conclusive.
There is another, more sinister possible cause. The deaths began at about the time a Proton-M rocket crashed after launching from the Baikonur Cosmodrome just 300 km (186 miles) from where the saiga carcasses first appeared. Environmental groups blame the highly toxic rockets fuels dispersed by both launch exhaust fumes and frequent recent crashes for the saiga die-off and other environmental disasters in the area. While the Russian government denies the accusations, it has agreed to fund a joint study on the effects of the May crash.
As of this writing, the saiga deaths continue. Man has reduced its numbers, made it vulnerable to disease and exposed it to toxins. Will man put forth the same effort to save the saiga antelope from extinction?