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Mystery disease has killed half the world's Saiga antelopes

By Karen Graham     May 29, 2015 in Environment
The death toll from a mysterious disease that has hit the saiga antelope population of Central Asia has soared to around 120,000, all the deaths occurring in a period of about three weeks, according to government officials in Kazakhstan.
The saiga antelope is a goat-sized, fawn-colored creature best characterized by its tubular nose. Hunting and habitat loss depleted its numbers so that the saiga is now a critically endangered species, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
The mysterious illness, causing severe diarrhea and breathing difficulties has a 100 percent mortality rate. The disease has wiped out nearly half of the world's remaining population of saiga antelopes since May 10. Kazakhstan officials say the country's saiga population was 257,000. The illness started May 10, and within days had soared to over 27,000.
The government immediately contacted the United Nations. "The current official figure is 85,000, but we are hearing unofficial estimates in excess of 100,000, approaching 120,000," says Aline Kühl-Stenzel of the UN Convention on Migratory Species. A team of veterinarians and scientists, led by Richard Kock of the Royal Veterinary College in Hatfield, UK, flew out to Kazakhstan on Friday.
"It's very dramatic and traumatic, with 100 per cent mortality," Kock told New Scientist from Betpak-Dala in central Kazakhstan. "I know of no example in history with this level of mortality, killing all the animals and all the calves."
Believe it or not, but the saiga antelope numbered over a million in the 1990s. But poachers has since decimated the population, killing the males for their horns, believed to be as valuable as rhino horns in Chinese traditional medicine. In June 2014, Chinese Horgus customs port at the Kazakh border recovered 66 cases containing 2,351 saiga antelope horns. The value of the horns was estimated to be worth over 70.5 million yuan (US$11 million). At that price, each horn would cost over US$4,600.
What is causing this massive kill-off?
Based on samples collected by Kazakh researchers when the die-off first started, Koch and his team have narrowed down the cause to three possibilities. The first is a hemolytic septicemia, caused by bacteria that are normally harmless but has also been known to kill buffalo.
Another cause, though less likely, is an epizootic hemorrhagic disease, a viral illness transmitted by mosquitoes. "We have to do more tests to rule that out," says Kock. One other possibility is toxemia, caused by Clostridium bacteria. But Koch says, "We need all the lab tests to be completed and a comprehensive analysis before we can reach any firm conclusions."
There is an answer to why all the deaths have occurred in so short a period of time. It seems all the pregnant females all calved at about the same time, providing ideal conditions for disease to spread. Researchers are out in the field now, collecting soil and plant samples to help figure out and identify the disease.
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