A total of 442 saigas – a distinctive creature with a long, humped nose that allows it to filter air during the dusty summer months and breathe warm air during the freezing winters – have been found dead, West Kazakhstan Region Governor Baktykozha Izmukhambetov told a cabinet meeting on May 31.
He said the deaths of 360 does and 82 calves may have been caused by an outbreak of pasteurellosis, a disease that attacks the lungs and which killed nearly 12,000 saigas in an epidemic last year. Scientists are also investigating whether “some sort of poisoning from the flora, which is to say from the grass, is taking place,” the governor added.
The saiga, which roams in remote areas of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Mongolia and Russia, is listed as Critically Endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List.
The World Wildlife Fund identifies loss of habitat and poaching as threats to its existence: The horn of the male saiga is prized in Chinese medicine for use as a painkiller and antibiotic, creating a thriving and illegal trade.
Kazakhstan has the largest numbers of saigas in the world, but a population which numbered over a million in the 1970s has been decimated, and last year officials estimated it at 85,000.