When it comes to life on earth, there are quite many more species than you would find at a zoo. In fact, there are at least 1,612,941 that we know of. Taking into account the biodiversity of our planet, it then may be not as much of a surprise that there exists an antelope with what looks like an elephant’s trunk for a nose. Known as the Saiga Antelope and residing primarily in Kazakhstan, this species has had some really bad luck over the last twenty years and has been de facto classified as “Critically Endangered” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
The Saiga have been plagued with widespread poaching.
From 1993 onwards their population declined by 95% and their fate has been closely linked with the breakdown of the Soviet Union in 1991. Due to the subsequent collapse of rural economies and widespread poverty, Saiga poaching provided an alternative source of income and food. The trade, though illegal, was hardly hindered by the poorly funded law enforcement. The Saiga are primarily hunted for their translucent amber horn. This is used in Traditional Chinese Medicine and the demand was high in China after the border to Kazakhstan was reopened in the late 1980s. Their own population of the antelope had gone extinct in the 1960s. As only saiga males can bear the precious horn the poachers aim to kill the males. As they are also heavier than females, hunting them yields more meat. This selective hunting has dramatically changed the structure of the populations as the number of adult males dropped to the point that there were not enough males to mate with all the females, leading to a reproductive collapse.
A mysterious illness has a death toll of almost half the Saiga population.
As if this wasn’t enough, a mysterious illness has caused more than 120,000 losses among a global population that was estimated to be around 262,000. A promising number after the lowest point recorded in the early 2000s. Though the species is known to have massive and as yet unexplained die-offs, this year’s epidemic is much more significant as entire herds are dying. “I have worked in veterinary diseases all my career and I have never seen 100% mortality,” says Richard Kock, a wildlife veterinarian at the Royal Veterinary College in Hatfield, UK who flew out to the country to assist in efforts to make sense of the devastation.
The exact cause is yet unknown, though the speed of the disease has astounded conservationists. Killing whole populations within days and having sub-populations some 300 kilometres apart suffering simultaneously. This suggests that an environmental factor is likely a part of why the saiga fell victim to them. Conservationists hope that by gaining a better understanding of the variety of factors that contribute to mass mortality it might be possible to avoid such events in the future.