Why did 200,000 antelopes suddenly drop dead?

Researchers working to find the cause of a mass mortality event now have their answer.

A male Saiga still with some of its winter coat remaining. Near Andasaiskiy nature sanctuary (Zakaznik), Kazakhstan. © Daniel Rosengren

A male saiga antelope © Daniel Rosengren / Royal Veterinary College 

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In May 2015, onlookers watched helplessly as thousands of Critically Endangered Saiga antelopes dropped dead in Kazakhstan.

The shocking mass mortality event saw 60 per cent of the entire global population wiped out in just three weeks.

“The recent die-offs among Saiga populations are unprecedented in large terrestrial mammal,” says head researcher Prof Richard Kock.

“The 2015 mass mortality event provided the first opportunity for in-depth study, and a multidisciplinary approach has enabled great advances to be made.”

New research has identified the cause of death to be the bacterium, Pasteurella multocide, which normally lives harmlessly in the Saigas’ tonsils.

In the days leading up to the event, abnormal climatic factors such as increased air temperature and humidity were recorded in the Saigas’ home range.

These provided better conditions for P. multocide, which multiplied rapidly, and entered the bloodstream of thousands of antelopes, causing hemorrhagic septicemia and sudden death.

This is not an isolated case: two similar Saiga antelope mass extinction events occurred in the 1980s and a more recent event in Mongolia in 2017 saw 60 per cent of a Saiga sub-species eradicated. 

Read the full paper in Science Advances

Read more wildlife news stories in BBC Wildlife Magazine

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