Saiga saga update: Tension mounts as scientists monitor species trying to bounce back from the brink of oblivion

Last year, one of the world’s worst ever mass mortality events wiped out over half of the planet’s entire population of saiga antelope. A wave of death swept across the steppe in Kazakhstan, central Europe, hitting the females in the Betpak-Dala community of siaga—who were herding together for the calving season—so savagely that it caused genuine concern about the survival of the species.

The carnage surprised and shocked scientists, who rushed to the remote area to try and make sense of the sorry scene.  As Love Nature reported last November, they eventually confirmed that an epizootic illness was to blame for the deaths, although why it struck so suddenly and with such devastating affect was still puzzling the biologists in the field.

Now, on the eve of the 2016 saiga calving season, we return to the steppe to see whether the unfortunate ungulates have managed to bounce back from their brush with oblivion.

Many agencies are working together to establish the cause of the deaths and prevent another outbreak
Many agencies are working together to establish the cause of the deaths. Photo: Sergei Khomenko

‘With the saiga’s calving season just around the corner in early May, you can feel the tension mounting amongst everyone who works with this critically endangered species,’ admits Carlyn Samuel from the Saiga Conservation Alliance (SCA). ‘Last year’s die-off was a unique and unprecedented biological event. Therefore intensive research work has been conducted since last May (and is still ongoing), to understand possible triggers and co-factors, including environmental stressors, which would explain such an extraordinary event.’

Continued analyses of samples from the catastrophic mass die-off last May, which killed over 200,000 saiga, have confirmed that the bacterium Pasteurella multocida led to the animals suffering haemorrhagic septicaemia, but the surprising thing for scientists was how vicious the outbreak was.

‘When symptoms appeared, death was only a few hours away. The herds showed up to 100% mortality, leaving only a few groups of animals alive, consisting mostly of males, which separate from the big calving aggregations,’ recalls Steffen Zuther from Altyn Dala Conservation Initiative (ACBK), who was in the field at the time of the die-off.

Vets continues to analyse the cause of last year's deaths
Vets continue to analyse the cause of last year’s deaths. Photo: Sergei Khomenko

And, sadly, disease isn’t the only thing threatening the very existence of Earth’s saiga, a wonderfully weird looking animal, which has the misfortune to be blessed with a horn prized (sometimes used as a substitute for rhino horn) in Eastern medicine.

‘Continuing severe poaching is causing further losses, especially of males, which are shot for their horns, a highly priced agent in traditional Chinese medicine, which is used in several Asian countries.’ explains E.J. Milner-Gulland from the Saiga Conservation Alliance. Recently the Committee of Forestry and Wildlife of the government of Kazakhstan reported an increase in the number of poaching cases in 2015 (107 cases compared to 79 in 2014).

As authorities attempt to crack down on poachers, scientists are focussing on the factors which may have made conditions ripe for the bacteria-caused disease to become so virulent for saiga in the area, which potentially include warming weather and flooding.

It’s a huge joint effort, led by the Royal Veterinary College of the University of London, and involving the Research Institute for Biological Safety Problems (RIPBS), the Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity of Kazakhstan (ACBK), Oxford University, Bristol University, Swedish Agricultural University at Umea, and the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation.

Unfortunately, as Professor Richard Kock from the Royal Veterinary College says, there’s no easy preventative measures that can be put in place: ‘The likely stress caused by attempting to vaccinate them, either through aerial spraying of aerosolized vaccine or other means, may be as likely to lead to mortality as the disease itself. Once environmental triggers and co-factors are determined, the potential for intervention can be reassessed.’

So the scientists watch, worry and wait as the females amass on the steppe. ‘I really hope that, come mid-May, I will be able to send you some beautiful images of new-born saiga calves alongside their mothers,’ says Carlyn Samuel. We hope so too, and if that happens we will bring them straight to a computer screen near you, so watch this space…