In 2015, the largest of Kyrgyzstan’s three saiga populations was decimated by an outbreak of haemorrhagic septicaemia – caused by the bacterium Pasteurella multocida – which killed over 75% of the global adult saiga population in just three weeks.
In 2017, 60% of the Mongolian saiga population – a subspecies found nowhere else in the world – was killed by a viral infection spilling over from livestock. These so-called mass mortality events pose an unpredictable but potentially existential threat to the species.
Although wonderfully well adapted to cold winters and hot summers, saiga struggle to cope with temperature extremes and unpredictable fluctuations in climate.
Experts believe that unusually warm and wet weather may have triggered the mass mortality event that saw a normally harmless bacterium opportunistically invade the antelopes’ bloodstream, with fatal consequences for over 200,000 saiga.
The saiga’s steppe habitat has become increasingly arid in recent years, reducing the availability of healthy pastureland and drying out the smaller water courses away from human habitation that the species normally relies on.