Saiga antelopes are among the strangest-looking creatures on Earth, and they are dangerously close to extinction. They are native to the northern part of the Asian continent, where they have been popular among poachers since the decline of the Soviet Union’s strict hunting controls. Last year, researchers estimated there were approximately 250,000 saiga still living in the wild, but the population has taken a huge hit recently, as around 85,000 of the antelopes have mysteriously died within the past few weeks. The cause (or causes) of death are still unknown.

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Reports began on May 11, when forestry officials in Kazakhstan found around 100 dead saiga. An investigation began immediately, seeking to identify the cause of the mass die-off. Since that time, more and more dead animals have been discovered, with the estimate climbing to 85,000 by May 22. Certainly, the actual numbers may be even higher than that.

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Briefly, rocket crashes in the area were suggested as a possible factor in the deaths, but Kazak space officials have denied any link. Many suspect the killer is a bacterial infection called pasteurellosis, which is known to be widespread in the saiga population, but nobody knows for sure yet. Even if the bacteria is to blame for the deaths, the high numbers have conservationists concerned. According to the Kazak minitry of agriculture, large die-offs have happened before, but it is almost unprecedented to see the loss of a third of a population in such a short time for any long-lived species like the saiga. Animal diseases experts are flying in to Kazakhstan to conduct tests on the dead saiga to determine whether pasteurellosis is the cause of this devastating die-off, or if something else is pushing the saiga closer to extinction.

Via IFLScience

Images via Wikipedia and Shutterstock