The Saiga saga

Dan Brown

The Saiga mass-mortality event has finally come to an end but with the loss of 50% of the population in just three weeks
A tragic sight as deceased animals are heaped together for burial.

A tragic sight as deceased animals are heaped together for burial.

You will no doubt have heard of the recent mass mortality amongst Saiga Antelope Saiga tatarica in Kazakhstan. The final official death toll stands at 134,252 animals, that’s 50% of the entire world population dead in just three weeks in Kazakhstan.

The Western Saiga - a bizarre antelope with the proboscis for filtering out dust in the summer and heating sub-zero air in the winter.

The Western Saiga – a bizarre antelope with the proboscis for filtering out dust in the summer and heating sub-zero air in the winter.

At the end of the last Ice Age roamed from western Europe right through to the pacific coast though gradually contracted their range until they were restricted to the asian steppe, including Eastern Europe. Still in their millions their great herds would have rivalled and probably surpassed the spectacle of African ungulates. Every year these animals would have made seasonal movements in search of fresh pastures and when spooked they can run at 80kmp/h, a sight in itself.

Normally Saiga run with their heads down to avoid ingesting too much dust from animals infant of them

Normally Saiga run with their heads down to avoid ingesting too much dust from animals infant of them

Saigas were once found right across the Palearctic. The males are characteristic in having horns, which the females lack.

Saigas were once found right across the Palearctic. The males are characteristic in having horns, which the females lack.

Dawn the nineteenth century, and like a dark shadow over the species, population numbers started crashing. The use of Saiga horn in Chinese medicine rocketed, and in fact became more popular than Rhino horn, and by 1930 the millions had been reduced to a small population on the Kalmyk Steppe in Europe. Just in time, strict anti-poaching measures came into place and by 1960 numbers were back up to 500,000 on the banks of the Volga and 1.5 million in Kazakhstan. Cue the breakup of the USSR, and a reversal in the fortunes of the Saiga. Once again uncontrolled poaching came in to play and the population crashed by 95% to a low of 50,000. Yet again a slow recovery has taken place up to 250,000 earlier this year but now the population has suffered a 50% decline.

An incredibly depressing sight as an entire herd dies almost in one go.

An incredibly depressing sight as an entire herd dies almost in one go.

This is not the first time a die-off has occurred though. In 2012 12,000 animals out of a population of 25,000 dropped dead following a harsh winter, and an unknown trigger. The cause is likely to have been the same then as now, haemorrhagic septicaemia, caused by the bacterium Pasteurella multocida. Thankfully the outbreak is now over but once within a herd it successfully killed every animal within a few days. One of the main reasons for the mass die-off is that all the females calve within a week of each other creating perfect conditions for the disease to spread between animals.

Mortality rate has been exacerbated by the simultaneous occurrence of calving in the population.

Mortality rate has been exacerbated by the simultaneous occurrence of calving in the population.

The re-introduced population in the Ukraine and the populations of the similar Mongolian Saiga thankfully appear to be untouched. With concerted conservation efforts it should be possible to bring Saiga numbers back up to former levels but with populations occurring in politically volatile areas this task may be far from easy.

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