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85,000 Rare Antelopes Perish in a Few Weeks — On Edge of Extinction

Posted May 27, 2015 in A Vet's Life

Saiga antelope

Kazakhstan is a country you’ve probably heard of, but know little about. Located in Central Asia; bordering Russia, China and Uzbekistan; this sparsely populated country was a part of the former Soviet Union. Much of Kazakhstan could pass for the African plains and serves as home to a wide variety of wildlife and exotic animals. It’s also the preferred territory of the endangered saiga antelope; an odd-looking creature noted mostly for its bulbous, drooping snout that appears more whimsical than practical. Reports out of Kazakhstan in recent weeks describe nothing short of wide-scale devastation for this species: An estimated 85,000 saiga antelopes have suddenly and inexplicably died, according to reports published by Radio Free Europe. And that’s only the beginning of this mystery.

The first reports
A few weeks ago, a seemingly minor news story from Kazinform International News Agency broke out of Kazakhstan, detailing the mysterious death of about 100 saiga antelopes. Officials began looking into the case, but weren’t too concerned about it. The die-off was occurring in three northern Kazakhstan regions; habitat to the largest saiga herds. Within days, the saiga fatalities spread to the thousands, and then tens of thousands of antelopes were found dead, according to Stephen Luntz of IFLScience.com. Scientists identified a culprit, but we’ll get to that later. First, it’s worth noting that the saiga species has somehow survived similar extinction threats before.

The last threat to saiga antelopes
Lutz reports that after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan’s wildlife preserves were vulnerable to poachers. In the 1990’s, about three-quarters of the entire saiga antelope population was wiped out by human hunting. That decimation landed the saiga on the endangered list and aggressive international initiatives have protected this incredibly unique animal species. Today the saiga antelope most likely faces a smaller, but just as deadly foe.

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Ernie has more than 20 years of experience in the veterinary industry and is a well-known veterinarian, media personality and author. He is also a founding member of IDEXX’s Pet Health Network team.

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