In one of the worst mammal die-offs in recent history, as many as 211,000 saiga antelope (Saiga tatarica) perished earlier this year in Central Asia. It’s a devastating blow to the already dwindling population. But what caused the deaths? And is there a solution? Here are five things you need to know.

Okay, first of all, what the heck is a saiga?

Saiga Running 2015 11 05
Reverse facelifts are all the rage in Kazakstan. The unusual ‘face sock’ of the saiga is believed to help regulate the animal’s temperature while also filtering out dust kicked up by the rest of the herd. Image: Seilov

With bulging eyes and a nose like a limp sock, we wouldn’t blame you for thinking the saiga antelope is nothing more than the phantasmagorical creation of a bored Photoshop pro. But these weird-looking creatures do exist and they’re amongst the most endangered species on the planet. Historically, you could find saigas in huge numbers across much of the Eurasian steppe region, but poaching for meat and horns, and mass mortalities like the die-off earlier this year, have shrunk their range to just one location in Russia and three areas in Kazakhstan.

So what’s the deal with the die-off? How many animals have we lost?

Saiga Mass Grave 2015 11 05
Dead saigas being shovelled into makeshift mass graves. Image: © FAO/Sergei Khomenko

The bizarre saiga die-off occurred in May this year and it’s a truly grim phenomenon. In less than a month more than half of the entire global species was wiped out. Carcasses littered the calving grounds in Kazakhstan's Betpak-Dala region – home to the world's largest saiga population. Although initial estimates tallied the death toll at 120,000, Steffen Zuther of the Frankfurt Zoological Society believes that as many as 211,000 may have perished; that’s 88% of the Betpak-Dala population (to put that into context, if humans suffered a similar loss of life, it would be the equivalent of wiping out all life outside of the Americas … plus an extra 100,000 or so people).

What is killing them?

Saiga Mass Grave 2 2015 11 05
Current estimated population numbers are between 250,000 and 320,000. The recent die-off claimed as many as 211,000 of these animals. Image: © FAO/Sergei Khomenko

Although the die-off is not completely understood, experts have narrowed down the possible culprits: sharp changes in weather and bacteria gone bad. Here’s the theory in a nutshell: a drastic drop in temperature stressed out the saigas, weakening their immune systems and triggering usually harmless bacteria to explode into violent infections, causing extensive internal bleeding that kills the animals in a matter of hours. Timing is also a crucial consideration. Most of the female saigas were nursing newborns or about to give birth in May, and the animals had already shed their winter coats. And if that wasn’t enough to stress them out, the herd was also feeding on newly sprouted grasses that require added energy to break down as quickly as possible, putting extra strain on their bodies. 

Has this happened before?

Saiga distribution map 2015-11-05
Although previous die-offs had an effect on saiga populations, none have been as catastrophic as this year's mass mortality. Historic distribution of the Saiga (Saiga tatarica); green: current distribution of Saiga tatarica tatarica; red: current distribution of Saiga tatarica mongolica Image © Altaileopard

Yes. You might remember the 2010 die-off, or maybe the massive one from 1988? In fact, records of saigas dying en masse date back as far as 1955. The worst mortality on record happened in 1988, with a staggering death count of 434,000 animals. The circumstances sound familiar: the deaths happened in mid to late May and symptoms included foaming at the mouth, diarrhoea and bloating. However, the saiga population has shrunk since the 80s and according to Dr Richard Kock, a scientist from the Royal Veterinary College in England, this year’s fatalities have claimed a bigger proportion of the population than ever before. The global climate has also transformed significantly since the earlier die-offs and overall average temperatures have increased. Studies on bacteria show that under higher temperatures microbes are more likely to produce toxins capable of killing the host.

Well that’s depressing. So is there a solution?

Steffen Zuther Examines Saiga 2015 11 05
Dr Steffen Zuther of the Frankfurt Zoological Society examines a dying female saiga. Image: © FAO/Sergei Khomenko

Okay! Time for some good news. There may be a small silver lining to this profoundly gloomy cloud. Although the saiga die-offs have been happening for some time, researchers have been previously unable to conclusively narrow down the cause of death. The latest studies are more positive. We’re starting to understand the die-offs and this could lead to a solution. Although environmental triggers are beyond our control, and it may prove difficult to protect the species against future die-offs, there are factors that we can control. Poaching is a big concern and it seems that the dwindling population numbers are sparking increased protection for saigas.

At a UN-backed meeting held recently, a concrete set of measures to restore saiga populations in Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Russia, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan were put into place. Saigas are pretty good at reproducing (not like those lazy pandas) and populations can theoretically bounce back from mass die-offs in as little as five years. We just need to make sure there are enough of them around to make this recovery.