When we hear about huge losses in endangered species, it usually takes place over the course of months or years, and it is often blamed on humans. However, sometimes nature can be just as responsible for the devastation, and in the case of the critically endangered Saiga, it can work much faster.
The Saiga is a species of antelope that lives in the steppes of Central Asia. While conservation efforts and anti-poaching laws have helped them bounce back in recent years, a dramatic die off has brought their numbers right back down.
Last month, a disease swept through Saiga herds and cut their population in half. In just two weeks, 120,000 of these animals mysteriously dropped dead. Strangely enough, this isn't the first time it has happened. Semi-regular cullings to the Saiga have happened before in 1984 and 2010. What is most puzzling in this recent event is that it affected different herds in different places simultaneously. The event is compared to if the different herds existed in Ohio, Upper New York State and Washington, D.C. and all dropped dead at the same time. That much space between them makes it seemingly impossible that the disease would be able to afflict them simultaneous, yet it happened in Kazakhstan.
So far, scientists have struggled to link it all together. Researchers have found Clostridium and Pasteurella bacteria in the soil that can be deadly, but only if the animal was already sick. Another contributing factor is that May marked the birthing season for the Saiga, in which they gather in tight herds and giving birth leaves the mothers weakened and with compromised immune systems. These all likely helped the mysterious disease, but none would have caused it.
The Wildlife Conservation Society and the Saiga Conservation Alliance are still scrambling to find out what did this, testing for airborne diseases as well as taking samples from insects to help prevent yet another devastating Saiga die off from happening again.