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Press release: Saiga antelope in mass mortality mystery

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Critically endangered Central Asian species sends alarm bells ringing for PTES

A few weeks ago the critically endangered saiga antelope (saiga tatarica), that lives in the Central Asian steppe, suffered a catastrophic blow in Kazakhstan. Official figures state that nearly 140, 000 animals died suddenly and inexplicably. Almost half the global population was wiped out over a two week period. The reason for this mass die-off is still unknown, and the mystery continues to baffle conservationists. UK wildlife charity, People’s Trust for Endangered Species (PTES) is backing the Saiga Conservation Alliance (SCA) by sending the organisation emergency funding to support urgent fieldwork and PTES is also calling on the public to help raise as much money as possible to investigate the possible causes of this wildlife tragedy.

For many years saiga antelope have been persecuted, and since the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991, their global population has plummeted by 95%, with over a million animals being lost. As the USSR collapsed, the saiga population fell with it. Previously closed borders opened up and uncontrolled illegal hunting for their horns, for use in Traditional Chinese Medicine, surged. Poaching is still a major threat and this antelope, unique to Central Asia, is unlikely to survive in the wild unless something is urgently done to help them. This latest event, however, is yet another disaster facing the saiga antelope population. Conservationists arrived in the breeding areas to find entire herds dying or dead on the ground, the majority consisting of mothers and new born calves, some only a few days old. Even those calves that endured the mass mortality are unlikely to live much longer without their mothers, especially since saiga males do not take part in the rearing of their young. The team now working in the area need to determine exactly why the saigas died in such unprecedented numbers to prevent it happening again.

Nida Al Fulaij, Grants Manager at PTES says, ‘PTES has been supporting work on saiga antelope through the Saiga Conservation Alliance for some years and, because we have such strong links with the teams on the ground, we are able to respond quickly to channel much needed financial support where it’s most needed. This event is simply catastrophic for the long term survival of this critically endangered species’.

It is not unheard of for ungulates to experience mass mortality in the wild. Bacteria can spread easily amongst these mammals, especially when herds gather to give birth. To experience a mass mortality on this scale is however very unusual, and experts are determined to find out why it has happened. Herds several kilometres apart succumbed at the same time, mystifying scientists as to what has caused this population crash.

Nida Al Fulaij concludes, ‘Right now we need the public’s help, and donations are urgently required so our team can determine what has caused such a high number of saiga antelope to die in Kazakhstan in such a short space of time. This was an abnormal occurrence, and it’s important to us to find some immediate answers’.
PTES are appealing for the public to donate towards the team currently in Kazakhstan. Visit the appeal page if you would like to help save the saiga antelope.

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For further information, interview requests, or images please call Jake Baker or Susannah Penn at Firebird PR on 01235 835297 or email sp@firebirdpr.co.uk

Notes to Editors:

About PTES
PTES is a UK conservation charity created in 1977 to ensure a future for endangered species throughout the world. Working to protect some of our most threatened wildlife species and habitats, it provides practical conservation support through funding research and internships; providing grant-aid for world-wide and native mammals species conservation; supporting education, training and outreach programmes; and driving public participation via wildlife monitoring surveys, publications, campaigns and events. Priority species and habitats include hazel dormice, hedgehogs, water voles, noble chafer and stag beetles and traditional orchards and native woodlands.
Visit www.ptes.org for more information about PTES or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

About saiga antelopes
Saiga antelope (saiga tatarica) are one of the most threatened species on the planet. Their numbers have declined by 95% in just 15 years. They once roamed along-side mammoths, woolly rhinos and bison. These mammals inhabit the Arid Eurasian steppe and their diet consists of grasses, herbs and shrubs. Natural predators of the saiga include wolves, foxes and eagles, although the main cause for their endangered status is due to human interaction and mass mortality. They are listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List, due to decline from a million in early 1990s to just six per cent of that by 2005.

About the Saiga Conservation Alliance (SCA)
The Saiga Conservation Alliance (SCA) is committed to saving the critically endangered saiga antelope from imminent extinction. We are a long-standing network of scientists and conservationists who work across saiga range states on grassroots projects informed by sound science. At the SCA we believe in bringing stakeholders together to emphasize human needs and to act as a catalyst for sustainable conservation solutions. Visit www.saiga-conservation.com for more information.

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We'd love to tell you about our conservation work through our regular newsletter Wildlife World, and also how you can save endangered species through volunteering, taking action or donating. You must be 18 or over. The information that you provide will be held by People’s Trust for Endangered Species. For information on how PTES processes personal data, please see our privacy policy.

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