Mass deaths of rare antelopes in Kazakhstan stir conservation fears

By Dana Rysmuhamedova, AFP

ASTANA, Kazakhstan–The sudden deaths of tens of thousands of endangered antelopes in ex-Soviet Kazakhstan over the past two weeks have left scientists scrambling for answers and conservationists worried about the animal’s future. Over 120,000 rare saiga antelopes �X more than a third of the total global population �X have been wiped out in a devastating blow that the United Nations Environment Programme has called ��catastrophic.��

U.N. experts have said the mass deaths are down to ��a combination of biological and environmental factors.�� Scientists have struggled to put their finger on the exact nature of the disease that has felled entire herds, but say findings point towards an infectious disease caused by various bacteria. Any infections have likely been exacerbated by recent rains that have made the antelopes �X 90 percent of which live on the steppes of Central Asian Kazakhstan �X less able to cope with diseases. ��Unseasonal wetness may have been something that lowered their immunity to infection but until we do more analysis we will not know anything for sure,�� Steffen Zuther of the Altyn Dala Conservation Initiative told AFP. The rate of the deaths has staggered those who have studied the species �X whose ancestors have inhabited the region since the ice age.

��A 100-percent mortality for the herds affected is extraordinary,�� said Richard Kock, a professor at the Royal Veterinary College in London who recently returned from Kazakhstan.

��We are dealing with creatures that have fairly low resilience.��

The sudden spate of deaths comes as a nasty shock as up until recently the saiga antelopes �X which live for between six and 10 years and are known for their protruding noses �X had been hailed as something of a conservation success.