Why Did 60,000 Endangered Antelopes Mysteriously Die in Four Days?
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.
— Live Science (@LiveScience) September 2, 2015
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.
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.
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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By Peter Giger
The speed and scale of the response to COVID-19 by governments, businesses and individuals seems to provide hope that we can react to the climate change crisis in a similarly decisive manner - but history tells us that humans do not react to slow-moving and distant threats.
A Game of Jenga<p>Think of it as a game of Jenga and the planet's climate system as the tower. For generations, we have been slowly removing blocks. But at some point, we will remove a pivotal block, such as the collapse of one of the major global ocean circulation systems, for example the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), that will cause all or part of the global climate system to fall into a planetary emergency.</p><p>But worse still, it could cause runaway damage: Where the tipping points form a domino-like cascade, where breaching one triggers breaches of others, creating an unstoppable shift to a radically and swiftly changing climate.</p><p>One of the most concerning tipping points is mass methane release. Methane can be found in deep freeze storage within permafrost and at the bottom of the deepest oceans in the form of methane hydrates. But rising sea and air temperatures are beginning to thaw these stores of methane.</p><p>This would release a powerful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, 30-times more potent than carbon dioxide as a global warming agent. This would drastically increase temperatures and rush us towards the breach of other tipping points.</p><p>This could include the acceleration of ice thaw on all three of the globe's large, land-based ice sheets – Greenland, West Antarctica and the Wilkes Basin in East Antarctica. The potential collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is seen as a key tipping point, as its loss could eventually <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/324/5929/901" target="_blank">raise global sea levels by 3.3 meters</a> with important regional variations.</p><p>More than that, we would be on the irreversible path to full land-ice melt, causing sea levels to rise by up to 30 meters, roughly at the rate of two meters per century, or maybe faster. Just look at the raised beaches around the world, at the last high stand of global sea level, at the end of the Pleistocene period around 120,0000 years ago, to see the evidence of such a warm world, which was just 2°C warmer than the present day.</p>
Cutting Off Circulation<p>As well as devastating low-lying and coastal areas around the world, melting polar ice could set off another tipping point: a disablement to the AMOC.</p><p>This circulation system drives a northward flow of warm, salty water on the upper layers of the ocean from the tropics to the northeast Atlantic region, and a southward flow of cold water deep in the ocean.</p><p>The ocean conveyor belt has a major effect on the climate, seasonal cycles and temperature in western and northern Europe. It means the region is warmer than other areas of similar latitude.</p><p>But melting ice from the Greenland ice sheet could threaten the AMOC system. It would dilute the salty sea water in the north Atlantic, making the water lighter and less able or unable to sink. This would slow the engine that drives this ocean circulation.</p><p><a href="https://www.carbonbrief.org/atlantic-conveyor-belt-has-slowed-15-per-cent-since-mid-twentieth-century" target="_blank">Recent research</a> suggests the AMOC has already weakened by around 15% since the middle of the 20th century. If this continues, it could have a major impact on the climate of the northern hemisphere, but particularly Europe. It may even lead to the <a href="https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10871/39731?show=full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cessation of arable farming</a> in the UK, for instance.</p><p>It may also reduce rainfall over the Amazon basin, impact the monsoon systems in Asia and, by bringing warm waters into the Southern Ocean, further destabilize ice in Antarctica and accelerate global sea level rise.</p>
The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation has a major effect on the climate. Praetorius (2018)
Is it Time to Declare a Climate Emergency?<p>At what stage, and at what rise in global temperatures, will these tipping points be reached? No one is entirely sure. It may take centuries, millennia or it could be imminent.</p><p>But as COVID-19 taught us, we need to prepare for the expected. We were aware of the risk of a pandemic. We also knew that we were not sufficiently prepared. But we didn't act in a meaningful manner. Thankfully, we have been able to fast-track the production of vaccines to combat COVID-19. But there is no vaccine for climate change once we have passed these tipping points.</p><p><a href="https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-global-risks-report-2021" target="_blank">We need to act now on our climate</a>. Act like these tipping points are imminent. And stop thinking of climate change as a slow-moving, long-term threat that enables us to kick the problem down the road and let future generations deal with it. We must take immediate action to reduce global warming and fulfill our commitments to the <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Paris Agreement</a>, and build resilience with these tipping points in mind.</p><p>We need to plan now to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, but we also need to plan for the impacts, such as the ability to feed everyone on the planet, develop plans to manage flood risk, as well as manage the social and geopolitical impacts of human migrations that will be a consequence of fight or flight decisions.</p><p>Breaching these tipping points would be cataclysmic and potentially far more devastating than COVID-19. Some may not enjoy hearing these messages, or consider them to be in the realm of science fiction. But if it injects a sense of urgency to make us respond to climate change like we have done to the pandemic, then we must talk more about what has happened before and will happen again.</p><p>Otherwise we will continue playing Jenga with our planet. And ultimately, there will only be one loser – us.</p>
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