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Why Did 60,000 Endangered Antelopes Mysteriously Die in Four Days?

Science

This past May, a large herd of saigas—a critically endangered antelope in Kazakhstan—died en masse, to the horror of conservationists worldwide. More than 120,000 of these creatures had mysteriously died across the Central Asian country in two weeks, including a whopping 60,000 saigas in central Kazakhstan in just four short days.

In a few short weeks, one-third of the worldwide population of saigas—known for its distinctive bulbous nose and for its key role in steppe grassland ecosystems—were found dead. Scientists had no idea why.

“I’m flustered looking for words here,” Joel Berger, a senior scientist at the Wildlife Conservation Society, told The New York Times in June. “To lose 120,000 animals in two or three weeks is a phenomenal thing.”

The horrendous population dive stopped suddenly that June, causing even more confusion.

But now, as Live Science reported, scientists believe they have pinpointed the culprit—a common and normally harmless bacteria that lives in the animals' bodies.

According to Live Science, an extensive analysis revealed that that toxins produced by Pasteurella and possibly Clostridia bacteria caused extensive bleeding in the animals’ organs. Pasteurella, a gut bacteria found in all ruminants such as saigas, is harmless unless the animal already has a weakened immune systems.

The current saiga antelope distribution.
Photo credit: Google maps

Scientists have yet to figure out why this typically harmless bacteria has led to mass death.

One possible theory, according to wildlife vet and lead investigator Steffen Zuther, is an exceptionally cold winter followed by a very wet spring that could have caused the bacteria to become widespread in the environment, Live Science reported.

Zuther said that female saigas, which cluster up to calve their young, were hit the hardest. The mothers died first followed by their calves, as they are too young to eat any vegetation. This suggests mothers' milk transmitted whatever was killing the animals.

Mass die-offs of the antelope—as well many other animal populations—are not unusual in nature. As Inquistr noted, about 270,000 saigas died in 1988, and 12,000 in 2010, but scientists are concerned that another hit could devastate the entire saiga population.

Saigas are listed as critically endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. A few herds live in Kazakhstan as well as one small herd in Russia and Mongolia. It's currently estimated there are around 50,000 left.

Saiga antelopes are one of the fastest declining mammal species on our planet today. Photo credit: Saiga Conservation Alliance

E. J. Milner-Gulland, a conservation biologist at Imperial College London, spoke to The Guardian about the saiga die-offs in June, and the importance of future research into this area.

"If we understand the factors that contribute to these events, we may be able to mitigate or prevent them in the future," she said. "This is important because three of the four remaining populations of saiga are at such low levels that an event like this could wipe them out completely."

She also spoke about another very common but serious threat: humans.

"Hunting is a serious problem," Milner-Gulland said. "We need to get all these populations to a level that is actually resilient enough to cope with the natural mass mortalities that happen in the saiga antelope. Anti-poaching needs to be a top priority for the Russian and Kazakh governments."

According to the Saiga Conservation Alliance, poaching is a main factor driving the animal's population decline. "The saiga's meat and hide are traditionally valued, but nowadays saiga are primarily hunted for their translucent amber horn, which is used Southeast Asian countries for Chinese Traditional Medicine," the alliance said.

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A volcano erupts on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island on Dec. 9, 2019. Michael Schade / Twitter

A powerful volcano on Monday rocked an uninhabited island frequented by tourists about 30 miles off New Zealand's coast. Authorities have confirmed that five people died. They expect that number to rise as some are missing and police officials issued a statement that flights around the islands revealed "no signs of life had been seen at any point,", as The Guardian reported.

"Based on the information we have, we do not believe there are any survivors on the island," the police said in their official statement. "Police is working urgently to confirm the exact number of those who have died, further to the five confirmed deceased already."

The eruption happened on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island, an islet jutting out of the Bay of Plenty, off the country's North Island. The island is privately owned and is typically visited for day-trips by thousands of tourists every year, according to The New York Times.

Michael Schade / Twitter

At the time of the eruption on Monday, about 50 passengers from the Ovation of Seas were on the island, including more than 30 who were part of a Royal Caribbean cruise trip, according to CNN. Twenty-three people, including the five dead, were evacuated from the island.

The eruption occurred at 2:11 pm local time on Monday, as footage from a crater camera owned and operated by GeoNet, New Zealand's geological hazards agency, shows. The camera also shows dozens of people walking near the rim as white smoke billows just before the eruption, according to Reuters.

Police were unable to reach the island because searing white ash posed imminent danger to rescue workers, said John Tims, New Zealand's deputy police commissioner, as he stood next to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in a press conference, as The New York Times reported. Tims said rescue workers would assess the safety of approaching the island on Tuesday morning. "We know the urgency to go back to the island," he told reporters.

"The physical environment is unsafe for us to return to the island," Tims added, as CNN reported. "It's important that we consider the health and safety of rescuers, so we're taking advice from experts going forward."

Authorities have had no communication with anyone on the island. They are frantically working to identify how many people remain and who they are, according to CNN.

Geologists said the eruption is not unexpected and some questioned why the island is open to tourism.

"The volcano has been restless for a few weeks, resulting in the raising of the alert level, so that this eruption is not really a surprise," said Bill McGuire, emeritus professor of geophysical and climate hazards at University College London, as The Guardian reported.

"White Island has been a disaster waiting to happen for many years," said Raymond Cas, emeritus professor at Monash University's school of earth, atmosphere and environment, as The Guardian reported. "Having visited it twice, I have always felt that it was too dangerous to allow the daily tour groups that visit the uninhabited island volcano by boat and helicopter."

The prime minister arrived Monday night in Whakatane, the town closest to the eruption, where day boats visiting the island are docked. Whakatane has a large Maori population.

Ardern met with local council leaders on Monday. She is scheduled to meet with search and rescue teams and will speak to the media at 7 a.m. local time (1 p.m. EST), after drones survey the island, as CNN reported.

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