12,000 saiga antelope dead in Kazakhstan
“This is a tragic and shocking event. It's particularly unfortunate that the population was just emerging from an unusually harsh winter, and that those struck down are mostly females and this year's calves,” said Prof. E.J. Milner-Gulland, Chair of the Saiga Conservation Alliance and a member of IUCN Species Survival Commission Antelope Specialist Group.
Already listed as Critically Endangered
The official 2009 estimate of the size of the Ural population was 26,000 animals. The saiga is listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species due to a 95% decline in its population size since 1995, caused by uncontrolled poaching in the aftermath of the break-up of the Soviet Union. It has only five populations, which are found in Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Mongolia. In the last few years it has been showing some recovery, thanks to conservation efforts. However, the Ural population is the only group of saiga without an internationally-supported conservation programme.
The cause of the deaths is still unclear and under investigation.
Although the deaths are currently being ascribed to pasteurellosis, the underlying trigger remains to be identified. Pasteurellosis is caused by a bacterium that lives naturally in healthy individuals, but can cause acute illness and rapid death if the animal’s immune system is compromised, either by another infection, poisoning, stress or malnutrition. Any of these explanations are possible.
Bring much needed attention to the Ural population
“The Ural population has been relatively neglected by international conservation until now, but hopefully this event will bring government, national and international conservationists together to mount a coordinated response to save this remote population,” said Milner-Gulland.
The Committee on Forestry and Hunting of the Kazakhstan within the Ministry of Agriculture has mounted a rapid response. These efforts are now being aided by local NGO, the Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity in Kazakhstan, with the support of the Saiga Conservation Alliance, who are helping the government to investigate the cause of death. In addition, IUCN’s Antelope Specialist Group members have been active in advising these organizations.