Fauna & Flora International’s flagship species struck down

Nearly 12,000 critically endangered saiga antelopes have been found dead over the last week in the Ural population in western Kazakhstan. The dead were mostly females who had recently given birth, as well as their calves.

Official estimate of the Ural population was 26,000 animals but the population has just been through an unusually harsh winter. These deaths represent a severe blow to this population and to the species as a whole.

The saiga is critically endangered due to a 95% decline in its numbers size since 1995, caused by uncontrolled poaching in the aftermath of the break-up of the Soviet Union. It has only five populations, and is found in Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Mongolia.

Fauna & Flora International (FFI) currently has an active saiga conservation project on the Ustyurt Plateau in Uzbekistan focussing on reducing threats to this population.

In the last few years global saiga numbers have shown some recovery, thanks to national and international conservation efforts. However the Ural population is the only one without an internationally-supported conservation programme.

The cause of the deaths is still unclear, and is currently under investigation. Although the deaths are currently being ascribed to pasteurellosis, the underlying trigger remains to be identified.

Pasteurellosis is caused by a bacterium that lives naturally in healthy individuals, but can cause acute illness and rapid death if the animal’s immune system is compromised, either by another infection, poisoning, stress or malnutrition. Any of these explanations is still currently possible.

The Committee on Forestry and Hunting within the Kazakhstan Ministry of Agriculture has mounted a rapid response. These efforts are now being aided by local NGO, the Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity in Kazakhstan, with the support of the Saiga Conservation Alliance, who are helping the government to investigate the cause of death.

FFI is engaged in discussions with a number of conservation groups on how we can best contribute to the immediate response to this terrible event.

Photo credits: Igor Shpilenok