Was a Spacecraft to Blame for the Third Annual Antelope Die-Off in Kazakhstan?

Saiga antelopes<a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/usfwshq/6383860215/sizes/z/in/photostream/" target="_blank">USFWS Headquarters</a>/Flickr

Let our journalists help you make sense of the noise: Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter and get a recap of news that matters.


This post was originally published at Scientific American.

This is getting a bit weird. In May 2010 at least 12,000 critically endangered saiga antelopes (Saiga tatarica) were found dead in Kazakhstan. Exactly one year later a second mass die-off occurred, killing 450 of the rare animals. Now, once again almost exactly a year later, yet another round of deaths has struck Kazakhstan’s saiga population. Nearly 1,000 dead antelopes have been found over the past two weeks.

The previous deaths were blamed on pasteurellosis, an infection that afflicts the lungs. Healthy animals aren’t usually affected by the bacterium that causes this disease but it can prove fatal in creatures whose immune systems have been compromised. This week Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Agriculture blamed the most recent spate of deaths on pasteurellosis, although they provided no details.

But some ecologists in Kazakhstan and Russia are instead blaming the fatalities on the April landing of a Soyuz capsule from the International Space Station. At least 120 dead saigas were found near the village of Sorsha, where the Soyuz landed last month. Others see a possible link to the Baikonur Cosmodrome launch site in central Kazakhstan. “It could be from chemical elements left from space rockets that fly over this place,” ecologist Musagali Duambekov, leader of the For a Green Planet political movement, told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL). He also suggested the “extensive use of fertilizers” in the region could be harming the antelopes’ immune systems.

Others suggest a more natural cause. Eleanor Milner-Gulland, chair of the Saiga Conservation Alliance, told RFE/RL the animals may have consumed too much wet or “rich” vegetation tainted by bacteria during the breeding season. Most of the dead saigas were females who had just given birth, which may have left them in a weakened state and unable to feed their young, which also died.

Once numbering in the millions, saigas were extensively poached after the fall of the Soviet Union. Today just 85,000 or so animals remain in five isolated populations in Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Mongolia. Other than these mysterious die-offs, the main threats to saigas remain poaching for their meat and traditional Asian medicine, in which the animals’ translucent horns are used to “cure” headaches, fevers, sore throats and other ailments.

IT'S NOT THAT WE'RE SCREWED WITHOUT TRUMP:

"It's that we're screwed with or without him if we can't show the public that what we do matters for the long term," writes Mother Jones CEO Monika Bauerlein as she kicks off our drive to raise $350,000 in donations from readers by July 17.

This is a big one for us. It's our first time asking for an outpouring of support since screams of FAKE NEWS and so much of what Trump stood for made everything we do so visceral. Like most newsrooms, we face incredibly hard budget realities, and it's unnerving needing to raise big money when traffic is down.

So, as we ask you to consider supporting our team's journalism, we thought we'd slow down and check in about where Mother Jones is and where we're going after the chaotic last several years. This comparatively slow moment is also an urgent one for Mother Jones: You can read more in "Slow News Is Good News," and if you're able to, please support our team's hard-hitting journalism and help us reach our big $350,000 goal with a donation today.

payment methods

IT'S NOT THAT WE'RE SCREWED WITHOUT TRUMP:

"It's that we're screwed with or without him if we can't show the public that what we do matters for the long term," writes Mother Jones CEO Monika Bauerlein as she kicks off our drive to raise $350,000 in donations from readers by July 17.

This is a big one for us. So, as we ask you to consider supporting our team's journalism, we thought we'd slow down and check in about where Mother Jones is and where we're going after the chaotic last several years. This comparatively slow moment is also an urgent one for Mother Jones: You can read more in "Slow News Is Good News," and if you're able to, please support our team's hard-hitting journalism and help us reach our big $350,000 goal with a donation today.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate