By Joanna Lillis
Over 500 rare Central Asian antelopes have been found dead from unknown causes in northern Kazakhstan.
The news will disappoint conservationists trying to boost numbers of the endangered saiga, a distinctive creature with a long, humped nose that permits it to filter air during the dusty summer months and breathe warm air during cold spells.
A total of 543 saiga corpses have been found in Kostanay Region in the far north of the country, Kazakhstan Today quoted the Emergencies Ministry as saying. The majority were does (508); 31 calves were also found dead. The cause of death is being investigated.
As well as roaming the steppes of Kazakhstan, the saiga also lives in remote areas of Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Mongolia and Russia. It is classified as Critically Endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List.
Kazakhstan is home to the largest numbers of saigas in the world, but a population that numbered over a million in the 1970s has been decimated.
The World Wildlife Fund identifies loss of habitat and poaching as the major threats: The horn of the male saiga is particularly prized in Chinese medicine for use as a painkiller and antibiotic, creating a thriving and illegal trade.
Nevertheless, conservation efforts appear to be paying off in Kazakhstan: Last year officials estimated that the country’s saiga population had reached 100,000, up from 85,000 the year before.
The biggest blow to conservation in Kazakhstan in recent years came from the death of nearly 12,000 saigas in 2010 in an epidemic of pasteurellosis, a disease of the respiratory tract. Last year another, smaller outbreak killed over 400 of the beasts.