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Weather the cause of Saiga mass-death

Three weeks of 2015 saw the near total collapse of the central Kazakh Saiga population. From new, cutting-edge research, we finally understand why.

Dead Saigas
'Corpses to the horizon' - Site of the 2015 Saiga mass mortality event. Photo by Steffen Zuther
In May 2015, a Frankfurt Zoological Society/Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity in Kazakhstan led expedition following the migration route of the Saiga Antelope across the Kazakh steppe, discovered a horizon littered with corpses. In the space of just a few weeks, 200,000 antelope would die in one of the largest mass mortality events in recorded history.

An event of such magnitude sent ripples through the scientific community. A bacterium – Pasteurella multocida – was quickly identified as the culprit behind the mass-death, causing haemorrhagic septicaemia in infected individuals.

Unfortunately, the complete answer is not this simple. Pasteurella multocida has been long observed in Saiga as a “commensal” organism – it lives and reproduces inside the throats of Saiga, causing no observable benefit or harm to the antelope. What could have caused this normally harmless bacterium to become deadly?

The answer is of course critical for future conservation efforts. A repeat of such a catastrophic mortality event could lead the already reduced Saiga population to its permanent extinction.
Steffen Zuther of FZS/ACBK, Professor Richard Kock of Royal Veterinary College and a Kazakh ranger examine a Saiga carcass. Photo by Daniel Rosengren
New research by an interdisciplinary, international research team has uncovered the hidden factors behind the phenomenon. While each factor alone is often harmless, the perfect concoction of conditions proves lethal. From patterns in previous Saiga die-off events, scientists were able to identify an increased probability of disease during particularly warm and humid weather – as was the case in 2015.

Additionally, the largest die-offs (in 2015 and twice during the 1980’s) have occurred during the calving season in Spring. Thousands of Saiga congregate annually to give birth. In the harsh desert environment of scarce food and fierce temperature extremes, it is essential that calves are born healthy to follow their mothers on the migration. Females therefore invest immense resources into their developing young, at great cost to themselves. Under the right climatic conditions, Saiga weakened by parenthood can succumb to disease in mere hours.

While these events have so far proven infrequent, ongoing climate change may increase the likelihood of warm, wet weather and therefore the risk of further mass-die off events. Continuing to a point where population recovery is no longer viable.

What can be done to avert a crisis?

“The triggering of such mass mortality events in saiga through weather conditions shows that not much can be done to prevent them occurring, and therefore how important it is to maintain saiga populations of sufficient size for the species to survive such catastrophes.” – Steffen Zuther, a lead author of the research and Project Manager for Kazakhstan at Frankfurt Zoological Society/Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity in Kazakhstan.

While humanity as a collective can reduce the extent of human-driven climate change, ultimately, we cannot control the weather. It is therefore imperative that ongoing and novel conservation methods are maintained and developed.

The Saiga are already burdened with disease spread through interaction with livestock, and are frequently poached due to the high value of their horns in foreign markets. Increased human development and expansion in their habitat also threatens migration routes. Through tackling these issues, we can prevent the irreversible disappearance of the Saiga antelope.

Follow the links below to learn more about international research and FZS involvement in Saiga conservation.




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