Quite mysteriously, the Saiga Antelopes (saiga tatarica) started dying in huge numbers since the 1980’s. The most recent die-offs in 2015, numbering upward of 200,000 animals, had everyone in a tizzy. The whole population in various areas of Russia, Kazakhstan and Mongolia is not more than 250,000 so we were all afraid that this could be another extinction event. Besides, there didn’t seem to be a rational explanation for this. Was it a disease that they got from cattle? How could it just suddenly appear and kill such a large number of animals?
In the human era, very rarely do animals die without our intervention so we were quite ready to point fingers at ourselves. Quite rightly so it turns out. Scientists have found that the die-off occured due to a bacteria called Pasteurella multocida effects of climate change that usually lives in the tonsils of the antelopes. It doesn’t cause harm normally but due to the , the few days of the die-offs experienced very high humidity of upto 80%. This activated the bacteria and caused the antelopes to get blood poisoning.
Mass die-offs have been known among large mammals like bison and mongolian gazelles and wildebeest to name a few. However, this severe a cull means that this species is seriously at risk of extinction in the wild.
To think that once this antelope was found all over Eurasia and northern Americas. Even the Roman historian Strabo, described a creature of this sort that was very common in Scythia and was purported to drink through its nose ( it is an easy enough mistake for people who were horrified and traumatized by Hannibal’s elephants). The animal is related to other bovid and antelopes and is known for it’s rather huge nose. This is a remarkable adaptation that helps filter dust and cool down the animal during summers and also warms the breath before it hits that lungs during winter.
The animals live in small herds of 40 to 50 individuals led by a large male with splendid curled horns. They come together in very large herds during spring to give birth. The numbers help protect the young from predators like wolves, foxes and eagles that pray on the foals. Due to habitat loss and predation, the numbers have come down from a million strong in 1990 to small and dispersed populations requiring protection of the governments of Kazakhstan, Russia and Mongolia. We live in hope that the remaining populations will become immune to the pestilient bacterium and there will be further conservation efforts to prevent extinction in the wild. Long odds, but what else is left but hope for these lovely creatures.