Saiga antelopes see massive fall in numbers, 60% wiped out already

Saiga antelopes
Dead Saiga antelopes lie on a field in the Zholoba area of the Kostanay region, Kazakhstan, in this handout photo provided on May 20, 2015 Reuters

Kazakhstan witnessed a rather strange event in May 2015 when more than 200,000 saiga antelopes died in just three weeks. That means, almost 60 percent of the population was lost. Further research revealed that they were infected with a bacterium that leads to blood poisoning and internal bleeding, or hemorrhagic septicemia.

A recent study published in Science Advances claims that this bacteria is born in unusually wet and hot weather conditions. Upon analyzing the historical data, of the 1980s, it has been found that when the outbreak took place back in the 80s and 90s, the weather was warmer and more humid than usual. Therefore, warmer climatic conditions can prove to be fatal for the Saiga tatarica or saiga antelopes. These critically endangered creatures might just go extinct, say scientists.

About Saiga antelopes

These antelope species are found in the grasslands of Central Asia, stretching from Hungary all the way to Mongolia. These creatures belong to the era of the mammoths. Sadly enough, habitat loss is proving to be fatal for them and is drawing the species towards extinction.

"Extinctions took out other animals, but the saiga persisted through modern time," said Richard Kock, a wildlife veterinarian and professor at the Royal Veterinary College in the UK and one of the authors of the study.

These animals have thick furs and unusual noses that helps to warm up the cold air before it reaches the lungs. They are well adapted to harsh environments and can withstand harsh winters.

The mass die-off in 2015 washed out almost 90 percent of the local population. For ungulates or large mammals, such die-offs are common. The Mongolian gazelle, wildebeest, and white-tailed deer -- all faced the same fate at some point in time. However, 2015's die-off was unprecedented, says Kock. The die-off of 2015 was horrible, echoed another conservation scientist Eleanor Jane Milner-Gulland.

The antelopes were attacked by the bacteria Pasteurella multocida which lives in tonsils. The bacterium at some point made the animals sick and they died. Symptoms were same for both the die-offs in 1980 and 2015. In 1981, around 70,000 saigas died and in 1988, nearly 270,000 died. Almost 73 percent of the local population was wiped out.

In both the cases, the weather was more humid than normal, almost over 80 percent. Average minimum daily temperatures were higher than normal in 2015. Climate change might be responsible for the outbreak of the bacteria, suggest experts. Global temperatures have increased by 0.85 degrees Celsius and this can be harmful to the animals as the trend shows, the bacteria is born in hot temperatures. In the last 40 years, the animals have already shifted north to give birth.

IUCN Red List

Saiga antelopes have been categorized as critically endangered according to IUCN. Uncontrolled illegal hunting for horns and meat has led to the fall in numbers of the species. Hunting of young males primarily has affected reproduction. Habitat loss and loss of migrational routes are other threats to the species. The recent increase in steppe fires is a cause of concern as well. Severe winters may also cause mass mortality.