Scientists may have found the cause for the mass die-off of wild antelopes in Kazakhstan in 2015 that almost wiped out the entire species.
Over 200,000 saiga antelopes suddenly died due to what is believed to have been a bacterial infection, and scientists think this was triggered by environmental factors, the BBC reports. New data shows that aside from the infection, unusually high humidity and temperatures were likewise involved.
Richard Kock of the Royal Veterinary College London, who was part of the original emergency team to respond to the antelope deaths, says the event was far more extreme that is normally expected for this kind of bacterial infection. He said,
The whole thing was really extraordinary. It’s very very likely to happen again.
Changing environmental conditions might means this kind of massive animal death could happen again, the researchers point out. The team used statistical analysis to look at environmental conditions in 2015and found high temperatures and high humidity in the days leading up to the antelope die-ff.
This was similar to two previous wildlife deaths in 1981 and 1988 in central Asia. Kock says this is “the first concrete evidence.” Therefore, there is a need to mitigate the risks to this critically-endangered species.
“There’s theoretically a possibility of extinction of the species entirely,” Kock said. “We have at least got a number of populations – albeit small ones – that are outside the danger zone.”
Other animals such as reindeer could also be vulnerable to the same mass deaths if these conditions for bacterial infection are not alleviated.
Steffen Zuther of the Frankfurt Zoological Society/Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity of Kazakhstan, co-author on the study, said that such animal die-offs are a major threat for the saiga antelope and could easily undo years of conservation in just a few days.
Zuther said, “The triggering of such mass mortality events in saiga through weather conditions shows that not much can be done to prevent them occurring, and therefore how important it is to maintain saiga populations of sufficient size for the species to survive such catastrophes.”
The saiga antelope live in the grasslands of Central Asia.
The study was published in Science Advances.