A herd of endangered antelope in Central Asia has suddenly died en masse

Player utilities

Listen to the story.

Marco Werman: For our next story, we’re talking antelopes; a specific kind of antelope that roams Central Asia, called the saiga. It’s on the endangered species list, so when a whole herd of saigas died recently in Kazakhstan, animal conservationists were understandably alarmed and stumped. You see, no one is quite sure what happened to the herd exactly. E.J. Milner-Gulland is a professor of conservation science at Imperial College London, and she’s been studying the saiga for more than 25 years.


E.J. Milner-Gulland: It’s about the size of a goat, and kind of sandy colored in the summer and white and furry in the winter. The main thing you notice is that it’s got quite a big, bulbous nose, and its nose kind of swells up in the males when it ruts.


Werman: Rutting? What is rutting?


Milner-Gulland: When it’s trying to attract the ladies, it swells up its nose. It runs in big herds across the steppe in a kind of streaming motion. It’s a very beautiful thing, if a bit odd.


Werman: So, what happened to the saigas in Kazakhstan?


Milner-Gulland: They gather in great big aggregations to give birth--tens of thousands in one aggregation--and this year when they gathered, the females had just given birth and they all died incredibly quickly within just a few hours of getting sick, and it was such that in an aggregation of, say, 60,000 animals, every single one died.


Werman: So, of the global population of saigas, what does that represent, percentage-wise?


Milner-Gulland: It’s over a third of the global population of saigas.


Werman: I mean, I hear about a die-off like this and the first thing that occurs to me would be--and I’m a layman--is disease. Is there any theory floating around that has pinned down some bacteria or virus?


Milner-Gulland: It is disease, but it’s not straightforward. It seems like there was a kind of big combination of environmental factors. So, maybe some wet weather after a cold winter, and then maybe there was some virus as well. When you’re giving birth, that’s your most vulnerable and weak time of the year, and so you’re very vulnerable to disease.


Werman: Why was this species even endangered in the first place?


Milner-Gulland: That was because of the break up of the Soviet Union. So, it’s big political events. It’s used for Chinese medicine, the horn is, and when the Soviet Union broke up, the border with China opened, and so it was possible to trade for the horns. And at the same time, there was this massive rural poverty because all the money for subsidized agriculture and wages was just withdrawn overnight. So, nobody had any money, they lost all their livestock, and so this was a way of getting some money. And then thirdly, all the money for management, conservation, and law enforcement stopped as well. So, these three factors together combined to make a perfect environment for poachers. Ninety-five percent of the population was lost in less than 10 years to poaching. Then we’ve had this recovery of this one population. So, to be knocked back with disease is really sad.


Werman: I mean, you sound a little encouraged that they can still bounce back, the saigas. But, I mean, if you look at Africa and the trade in animal horns there, it does seem like that trade really pushes this extinction business, it’s kind of an irreversible race to the bottom at that point.


Milner-Gulland: In a way, it’s not so much the disease as the poaching that still concerns me. So, there’s only five populations of saigas in the world. Three of the other four are in trouble from poaching. And even this population with the disease, the reason why it was--well, I won’t say okay, but we were sort of relieved that it was this population and not another--is that it was big enough that when it lost half of its animals, there’s still 120,000 or so left. Any of the other populations, you can just lose them all. So, the thing about poaching is that it gets you down to low enough levels that you’re then vulnerable to things like disease that we have no control over.


Werman: Dr. Milner-Gulland, I know, as a scientist, you’ve become a pretty keen follower of the saiga. Can you tell us why that particular species?


Milner-Gulland: Oh, well it’s beautiful. I think anyone who goes out to the steppe and sees them galloping across the steppe, and hears their mooing when they’ve got a huge aggregation of animals with calves at the foot, would just be captivated.


Werman: Wow. And then there’s that nose, right?


Milner-Gulland: Well, that too, yep.


Werman: E.J. Milner-Gulland, a professor of conservation science at Imperial College London. Thanks very much for your time.


Milner-Gulland: It’s great to talk to you. Thanks.