The Saiga Antelope once called almost all of the Eurasian Steppe its home, living throughout Mongolia, Russia, and the border between the European and Asian continents. Today, it is critically endangered with a habitat restricted to only Russia and Kazakhstan.
In 2015, 200,000 seemingly healthy Saiga antelope in Kazakhstan suddenly perished. For months and years, scientists puzzled over exactly what happened. 80 percent of the local population (which itself is actually 60% of the global population) dropped dead in only three weeks.
The dramatic events featured in the documentary Planet Earth II, and for a time, scientists were baffled.
Richard Kock, professor in emerging diseases and lead researcher at the Royal Veterinary College, declared “The recent die-offs among saiga populations are unprecedented in large terrestrial mammals.”
Entire herds were seen to have fallen over and perished.
Researchers believe that the culprit was a bacteria named Pasteurella multocida. It normally harmlessly resides within the tonsils of the antelope. However, something changed the bacteria and swiftly turned it into an agent of mass calamity and death for the creatures
The bacteria triggered hemorrhagic septicemia. Symptoms of the disease include fever, depression in activity, and labored breathing before the animal succumbs entirely to the bacterial poisoning of its blood.
The fatal infections also occurred after a period of increased warmth and humidity in the region, leading scientists to suspect that climate change is the true cause. It’s still a mystery how the change in temperature turned a naturally occurring bacteria into the kiss of death.
In a study published in Science Advances, the team of researches concluded “The fact that P. multocida infection in saigas… appears strongly linked to high humidity and temperature is of concern going forward, given that a climate change–induced increase in temperature is projected for the region over the short to medium term.”
There’s great concern that if climate change continues on its course, this first wave of mass deaths will only the beginning.
The close proximity of each herd makes mortality for the whole group extremely likely whenever a new pathogen or illness is introduced. With the population of the Saiga antelope drastically reduced from poaching in the 90’s, the next medical onslaught could wipe them out for good.