Naubet Bisenov in Almaty -
The mysterious mass deaths of tens of thousands of endangered saiga antelopes in Kazakhstan in May and June have threatened efforts to bring the steppe animal back from the risk of extinction. But perhaps more importantly, the scale of the disaster, unseen in a generation, has drawn attention to chronic problems that plague Kazakh society: corruption, pollution and the legacy of bad policymaking in the past.
The reports of the deaths of the rare saiga antelopes, which have long, unusual proboscises that allow them to filter dust during migration and warm the air during Kazakhstan's freezing winters while roaming the Eurasian steppes, first emerged from the Kostanay Region in northern Kazakhstan on May 11. The number of dead saigas rapidly reached the tens of thousands, while the area where this happened quickly expanded to the neighbouring Aktobe and Akmola regions.
As of June 2, personnel from the Kazakh Agriculture Ministry had found and destroyed 132,329 saiga carcasses – 112,309 in the Kostanay Region, 9,386 in the Akmola Region and 9,634 in the Aktobe Region. There have been no new cases reported since then, but the number constitutes a third to a half of the total saiga population in Kazakhstan before the die-off.
Kazakhstan accounts for an estimated 90% of the global population of the animal. Ironically, government efforts to restore the population of saigas, which due to poaching had fallen to the extreme lows of tens of thousands in the early 2000s from an estimated 1mn to 2mn in the late 1980s, had started to yield results. Kazakhstan has banned hunting for saigas until December 2020 and tightened punishments for killing the animal. However, it seems this rare animal is exposed to other dangers that now need to be studied. The previous large-scale deaths of saigas took place in northern Kazakhstan in 1988 when over 400,000 animals died.
The Kazakh government has failed to promptly establish the actual cause of deaths, offering routine explanations, blaming other departments and reducing itself to being a collector of animal carcasses.
Following the first reports of deaths, the ministry's committee in charge of the protection of flora and fauna said the cause was extreme malnutrition because dry weather had resulted in poor grass cover in 2014 and this, in turn, weakened the immune system of the animal. But then a government meeting on June 5 heard that the animals died from pasteurellosis – an infection with a species of the bacteria genus Pasteurella, which is found in humans and animals, according to preliminary studies. Following the outbreak, Kazakh authorities had asked the Secretariat of the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS) to despatch an emergency mission with experts from the UK's Royal Veterinary College and the Food and Agriculture Organisation to assist with post-mortem examinations. The CMS mission suggested that two secondary opportunistic pathogens, specifically Pasteurella and Clostridia, had caused the die-off. “However, the hunt for the fundamental drivers of the mass mortality continues, since these bacteria are only lethal to an animal if its immune system is already weakened,” the UK-based Saiga Conservation Alliance, a network of researchers and conservationists committed to studying and protecting saigas, explained.
Tengrinews reported on June 5 that foreign experts were expected to publish the findings of their studies by June 12, but this has not happened. The Agriculture Ministry, responsible for the protection of saigas, told bne IntelliNews, that it was not involved in establishing the cause of saiga deaths, because a spokesman for the ministry, who refused to give his name, said that it was not its responsibility. At the June 5 meeting, the spokesman said Deputy Prime Minister Bakytzhan Sagintayev had instructed another body, the Education and Science Ministry, to deal with the issue. He noted that the Education and Science Ministry had contracted the Institute of Biological Safety Problems in 2012 to the tune of KZT332mn (€1.6mn) for studying the problems of the saiga.
Alibek Shokparov, a spokesman for the Education and Science Ministry, confirmed to bne IntelliNews that the institute was working on establishing the causes of deaths and said it would publish its findings by July 1.
The government's sluggishness in establishing the cause of deaths and failure to limit the mortality has invited criticism that corruption is partly to blame for the problems of the saiga. “It doesn't matter what causes of death they [authorities] will come up with now – pasteurellosis, salmonellosis or some kind of grass cover – it is nonsense… The problem is the weak immune system of the saiga because the bodies of the animals have stopped resisting," Mels Yeleusizov, chairman of the Tabigat (Nature) environmental movement, told a news conference in Almaty on June 1.
The environmentalist explained that the poaching of saigas after Kazakhstan obtained independence in 1991 had damaged the gene pool of the animal, as poachers targeted the healthy, horned male species and left the weak and unhealthy species without horns, resulting in the destruction of the animals’ immune systems. "One-and-a-half million saigas had been destroyed in a short space of time. Trainloads of saiga horns had been shipped to China. They claim this was done by poachers; this was done by a joint mafia of the state and poachers,” he said, accusing the authorities of “systemic” collusion with poachers in the illegal trade of saiga horns, which are used in Chinese medicine.
Ryspek Baydauletov, a researcher at the Almaty-based Institute of Zoology, told the news conference that the institute had been “constantly” studying the problems of the saiga since it was set up in 1943. In the past few years, however, the system that allocates government funds via tenders is destroying the institute, because it cannot compete against commercial organisations that can make bids for government-funded research with little funding, he explained, referring to the Education and Science Ministry's funding for studying the saiga.
MP Aldan Smayyl and Senator Mukhtar Altynbayev have also suggested a link between the activities of the Baikonur space-launching site and the deaths of saigas, namely the release of highly toxic substance known as "heptyl", which is used as fuel to power the Russian-made Proton rocket booster, during the explosion of rockets at start or when parts of a booster fall on earth.
Meirbek Moldabekov, acting chairman of the Kazakh Aerospace Committee, said there was no direct link between heptyl and the mortality of the saiga, but did not rule it out. “I am inclined to think that [the cause] is not heptyl, but it should be studied and confirmed,” he said.
He argued that the deaths took place in northern parts of the country that are not near the trajectory of the fall of boosters. Parts of boosters might not fall in the regions where the saigas died, but as a nomadic animal saigas could still have been exposed to heptyl along their migration routes between Uzbekistan, Russia and other parts of Kazakhstan.
As if to shield the Russian space programme from blame for saiga deaths, Rosselkhoznadzor, Russia’s agricultural watchdog, said on June 8 that studies carried out by its laboratory had shown that the mass deaths of saigas had been caused by pasteurellosis.
The latest travails to beset the saiga population in Kazakhstan is a reminder that the recent recovery of saiga numbers is still far from being sustainable. In addition to measures aiming to reduce human harm to the animals there is need to carry out research to limit hazards the endangered steppe antelope faces in the wild.
Naubet Bisenov in Almaty - A free-floating exchange regime for Kazakhstan’s currency, the tenge, is taking its toll on retail trade as the cost of imports rise. While prices have not changed ... more
Henry Kirby in London - Ukraine and Russia’s latest “Despair Index” scores suggest that the two struggling economies could finally be turning the corner, following nearly two years of steady ... more
bne IntelliNews - The National Bank of Kazakhstan, the central bank, has re-adopted a free-floating exchange regime under the new governor, Daniyar Akishev, who has ... more