Half of the World's Endangered Saiga Antelopes Have Mysteriously Died

As many as 120,000 saiga antelope, nearly half the remaining population, have died in the past few weeks. REUTERS/Kazakhstan's Ministry of Agriculture/Handout via Reuters

Decades ago, the saiga antelope onced roamed the Eurasian steppe in vast numbers. In the 1990s there were more than a million of these animals, which are known for their distinctively oversized tube-like snout and pointy antlers. Today, however, they're critically endangered as hunting and habitat loss have reduced their numbers to around 250,000, with the majority living in Kazakhstan.

Over the past few weeks, nearly half of the remaining antelope, have died under mysterious circumstances. Aline Kühl-Stenzel, of the United Nations Convention on Migratory Species tells New Scientist that the death toll may have reached 120,000, though the official count is at 85,000.

What's behind these mysterious deaths? Richard Kock of the Royal Veterinary College tells the publication that it may be one of three ailments: haemolytic septicaemia, a bacteria that also affects buffalo; epizootic hemorrhagic disease, a viral disease transmitted by mosquitoes; or clostridia bacteria. Tests to find the culprit are underway.

Nobody knows yet why so many saiga have died. REUTERS/Kazakhstan's Ministry of Agriculture/Handout via Reuters

Radio Free Europe, however, notes that there is a more salacious possibility: poisoning from rocket fuel. Russian rockets are regularly launched from Kazakhstan's Baikonur Cosmodrome and spew a toxic fuel called heptyl, which The Moscow Times describes as a "highly corrosive combination of hydrazine and nitrogen tetroxide, topped off with kerosene." A Kazak space official tells Radio Free Europe that the deaths "could be, of course, linked to ecology, as well as to the Cosmodrome."

Yet E.J. Milner-Gulland, a British academic who heads the Saiga Conservation Alliance, a group that's trying to save the antelopes, tells The Guardian that the rocket fuel isn't likely to be the cause of the mass antelope deaths. "I think there is no evidence to that at all," she says.