Some suspect it’s a sign of an impending apocalypse, others suspect bacterial contamination played a role...
Between the Syrian crisis, abounding natural disasters, and 60,000 antelopes mysteriously dying in Kazakhstan, a lot is happening on planet Earth. Unfortunately, much remains a mystery – especially concerning the recent saiga die-off.
“[…] since there happened to be die-offs of limited extent during the last years, at first we were not really alarmed,“ said Zuther, the international coordinator of the Altyn Dala Conservation Initiative.
That was until, within four days, the entire herd of 60,000 saigas dropped dead. Soon, they received word that more than 120,000 of these creatures had mysteriously died across the Central Asian country in two weeks. Until recently, scientists have had no clue as to what might have caused the mysterious die-off.
“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,” Zuther said. “It’s really unheard of.”
According to the Geoecologist, an exceptionally cold winter followed by a very wet spring might have caused the bacteria to become widespread in the environment. He also adds that the female saigas were hit the hardest and transmitted the bacteria to their calves through their milk.
This isn’t the first mass die-off of saigas to be reported. In 1988, 400,000 of the antelope died and veterinarians reported similar symptoms. Unfortunately, this crisis places the animal in the “critically endangered” category, as their population has dropped to about 50,00o worldwide. What worries scientists and conservationists now, is that another hit could devastate – or even wipe out – the remaining population. At present, a few herds live in Kazakhstan, one small herd thrives in Russia, and another herd exists in Mongolia.
The grazing animal is vital to the ecosystem of the arid grassland steppe, as its eating habits help break down fallen plant material, recycle nutrients in the ecosystem and prevent wildfires fueled by too much leaf litter on the ground. The saigas also provide meals for predators.
Though the cause of the massive death remains a mystery, Zuther says he and his colleagues will continue searching to discover the cause.
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