Some 440 endangered saiga antelopes have been found dead in Kazakhstan in May this year; in Spring 2010 over 12,000 saigas died under similar, mysterious circumstances. A bacterial infection is thought to be the immediate cause of death, though underlying factors are not understood. Both incidents primarily affected females and their calves.
The saiga almost went extinct in the 20th century but recovered briefly. The World Wildlife Fund estimates there were over a million in the wild in the early 1990s, but they now number around 50,000 and are on the IUCN‘s critically endangered species list.
Victims of Poaching
The drastic decline in the saiga population is attributed to loss of habitat and poaching, particularly in the wake of the breakup of the Soviet Union. The creature’s horn is used in Chinese medicine, which has led to a thriving illegal trade. Wild saiga are extinct in China, though a center in northwest China is having some success with breeding the antelopes in captivity. Recently, severe winters followed by summer droughts have further challenged the animals.
The saiga antelope once roamed from western Europe across Asia as far as Alaska. There are five populations left in Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Mongolia. The unusual-looking antelopes have long, flexible noses that act as a filter to the dusty summer breezes, while also warming the frigid air they breathe in winter.
Conservation Efforts Continue
While it is to be hoped that scientists find the cause of these mass deaths, the larger issue of curbing demand for saiga horn will take more than laboratory tests. Protection efforts are underway, such as inclusion of the saiga in a special memo of understanding under the international Convention of Migratory Species framework. To further raise awareness and incentivize preservation of the species, later this year a travel company, working with the Saiga Conservation Alliance, will offer the first eco-tour to southern Russia featuring saiga antelope viewing.
Photo: Saiga Antelope by 3dnatureguy; Creative Commons license via Wikimedia