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.
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.
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?
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.