Steffen Zuther is a geologist and he along with and his colleagues went to central Kazakhstan to monitor the calving of one herd of saigas, that is an endangered antelope and is found in the steppes. They were given the news by veterinarians in the area that there were dead antelopes on the ground.
In a mysterious natural disaster, nearly half of all the saigas, a critically endangered antelope that roams the steppe of Kazakhstan, died off this year in early May. Geologists can still not unwind the mystery.
As conservationists and veterinarians made efforts to find out the reason for this die-off, they got news of similar population crashes in other herds across Kazakhstan. However, this ended in the early part of June suddenly.
Zuther, the international coordinator of the Altyn Dala Conservation Initiative, told Live Science, “But since there happened to be die-offs of limited extent during the last years, at first we were not really alarmed.” However, in a short span of four days the whole saiga herd of 60000 died.
International Union for the Conservation of Nature, have listed saigas as one of the few endangered specias that live in a few herds in Kazakhstan, one herd in Mongolia and one small herd in Russia. The herds congregate with other herds during the cold winters, as well as when they migrate to other parts of Kazakhstan, during the fall and spring. It was in this calving period that the deaths took place. The herds split up to calve their young during the late spring and early summer.
After three months, researchers can now pinpoint as to how more than half of the country’s herd, counted at 257,000 as of 2014, died so quickly. The deaths are to be blamed on bacteria on the sudden and large scale deaths of saigas. Zuther, however, questions exactly how these normally harmless microbes could take such a toll.
He added, “The extent of this die-off, and the speed it had, by spreading throughout the whole calving herd and killing all the animals, this has not been observed for any other species. It’s really unheard of.”
He went on to says that saigas play a critical role in the ecosystem of the arid grassland steppe, where the cold winters prevent fallen plant material from decomposing; the grazing of the dog-size, Gonzo-nosed antelopes helps to break down that organic matter, recycling nutrients in the ecosystem and preventing wildfires fueled by too much leaf litter on the ground. The animals also provide tasty meals for the predators of the steppe.
While speaking to Live science he added, “Where you find saiga, we recognize also that the other species are much more abundant.”
Die-offs of saigas, including one that killed about 12,000 of the endangered species last year (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yuZxBWboCp0), have occurred frequently in recent years. The reason why veterinarians could not reach the spot on time this year was due to the large area of their living space. It is this delay that has prevented researchers from understanding the cause of such mass deaths.
They finally reached the conclusion that an abundance of greenery caused digestion problems, which led to bacterial overgrowth in the animals’ guts.
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