Update, May 26: According to Kazakhstan's Agriculture Ministry, the number of confirmed saiga deaths now exceeds 85,000.
Over a thousand saiga antelopes have been found dead in northern Kazakhstan. Conservationists had been hoping that populations of this rare steppe-roaming ruminant were recovering.
The corpses have been found in Kostanay Region in northern Kazakhstan, the Ministry of Agriculture said in a May 13 statement that did not specify the precise figure.
The cause of death is unknown. Experts are running tests on the dead animals and on the surrounding soil and water, with the results expected in a week, the ministry said.
Last time there was a case of mass saiga deaths in this region, in 2012, the cause was established as pasteurellosis, a disease that attacks the lungs and which killed nearly 12,000 saigas – a species listed as Critically Endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List – in an epidemic in 2010.
The latest deaths have occurred just as conservationists have been reporting something of a success story in the saiga population's recovery. The distinctive creature has a long, humped nose that allows it to filter air during the dusty summer months and breathe warm air during the freezing winters.
Last year, the saiga population in Kazakhstan jumped by 37 percent to 256,000, the international Saiga Conservation Alliance said in December. The result was “very encouraging and showed the only increase in saiga populations across the saiga’s ranges,” the group said.
There are no reliable estimates for the size of the global saiga population. The animal also roams remote areas of Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Mongolia and Russia. But Kazakhstan is believed to have the world’s largest population.
Yet the country’s saiga population still stands at only a quarter of the one million estimated in Kazakhstan in 2000. The Kazakh population reached its lowest point of 21,000 in 2003, decimated by loss of habitat and poaching: saiga horns are valued in Chinese medicine and are smuggled across the border to China, where they fetch large sums.
In Kazakhstan, adverts to buy saiga horns can be spotted in cities in the regions where they roam, and government moves to ban such advertising has had little impact.
Saiga horns are sold to smugglers for a pittance in Kazakhstan: In one case reported in 2012, a man was buying horns for around $80 a pair and selling them on for $500 a kilo, while in China they can reportedly fetch up to $4,000 a kilogram.
Conservationists say the penalties for killing the endangered species are too low to serve as a deterrent: Most poachers get off with a fine, or – more rarely – a short jail sentence of just 15 days.