200,000 rare antelope die from a climate change-induced disease

By: Hunter Calvert

Climate change’s effects today are more tangible than ever. Glaciers crumble, seas rise and entire national regions face the disastrous consequences of global warming. The earth’s heat levels are trending upward at a deadly pace. It is these record-high temperatures that have gradually afflicted valuable and struggling animal species throughout earth’s immediate history, such as the endangered snow leopard and polar bear.

The Saiga antelope, a rare middle-eastern species dating back to the ice age with snouts much like that of an elephant seal, is one of the latest exotic species to fall victim to the earth’s warming. However, unlike other endangered species, the recent decline of the Saiga antelope was neither gradual nor predictable.

In 2015, roughly 200,000 Saigas suddenly died to a mysterious epizootic sickness, exterminating more than half of their total population. The Mongolian sub-species, Saiga Tatarica Mongolica, dropped to an estimated population of 750 antelopes. The sudden event remained a quandary to Saiga scientists and biologists until late 2016 when conservation experts linked the epidemic to rising global temperatures and humidity.

Henry Nicholls, a journalist for The Guardian, conducted an interview with conservation biologist E.J. Milner-Gulland, chair of Saiga Conservation Alliance, regarding the Saiga epidemic.

More than 134,000 saigas died in the space of just two weeks in May,” Milner-Gulland said. “This is about half of the global population.”

The event left the Saiga population crippled and meager. Milner-Gulland went on to say that another similarly catastrophic event “could wipe them out completely.”

The responsible culprit proved to be bacterium Pasteurella multocida, a generally benign group of microorganisms that thrive within the Saiga’s respiratory tract. The question then was not what directly induced such mass mortality, but how a single bacterium suppressed an entire species.

In a study published in Science Advances in January of 2018, an extensive team of international conservation experts approached conclusions regarding the bacteria’s effects on antelope and bovines. The group of authors stated that,

“The fact that P. multocida infection in saigas . . . appears strongly linked to high humidity and temperature is of concern going forward, given that a climate change–induced increase in temperature is projected for the region over the short to medium term and evidence for recent change is strong.”

The team hypothesized that the unprecedented warm and wet conditions produced by climate change may have caused the bacteria to permeate the blood stream and transform into a lethal pathogen. Once in the blood stream, the pathogen employed a fatality rate of 100 percent, leaving each Saiga antelope dead within a few days, if not a few hours.

The story of the Saiga verifies the unpredictable, sour reality of climate change. But the Saiga antelope does live on, and so do other precious species endangered by the adverse conditions on earth. However, if global warming persists on its current destructive path without sufficient effort to contain it, these struggling species have a grim chance of survival moving forward.

The wake of climate change will not merely halt at the Saiga antelope. According to the European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change Service, 2017 was the second hottest year on record, only behind 2016. The earth is an entire 1.2º hotter than it was in pre-industrial times. This seems like a rather small change, but the same temperature increase within the human body could induce extensive sickness and death if untreated. If global warming’s steadfast wake remains unsuppressed, then we — the human race — could find ourselves in a similar plight to that of the Saigas.


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