ASTANA -- Authorities in Kazakhstan say they've found hundreds more carcasses of a critically endangered species of antelope in a northern region, with the toll in the latest die-off now topping 1,000 animals.
Deputy Agriculture Minister Erlan Nysanbaev announced the higher death toll to reporters in Astana on May 13, one day after reports emerged of around 100 dead saiga antelopes, also in the Amangeldy district of the Qostanai region.
He said prosecutors and the government had been informed of the situation and special working groups established to investigate.
"The ground, water, and fallen animals' flesh samples have been collected for tests and sent to the state lab in the capital. Preliminary test results are expected to be available in a week," Nysanbaev said.
He added that the antelope bodies bore no wounds or other signs of trauma.
Saiga horns are said to be used in traditional Tibetan and Chinese medicine, and a pair of horns fetches around $80 on the Kazakh black market, a substantial sum by local standards.
"It is most likely that the mass saiga event has been caused by the pasteurellosis infection, but a clear answer can only be given once test results are ready," Nysanbaev added.
The distinctive-looking saiga antelope, with its bulging eyes and tubular snout, is listed as critically endangered, with an estimated 50,000 or so roaming the Eurasian steppe after years of unrestricted hunting following the Soviet collapse.
There have been incidents in Kazakhstan of significant numbers of saiga antelope dying at the hands of poachers, with horns removed, and larger numbers in similarly mysterious die-offs.
Activists blamed a May 2012 discovery of nearly 1,000 dead animals, also in Qostanai, on activities at the nearby Baikanour Cosmodrome, which Russia uses for its space programs.
Kazakh officials countered that those deaths were due to pasteurellosis, an infection residing in the mouth and breathing passage.
Several Russian Proton-M rockets, which use highly toxic fuel, have exploded over Kazakh territory after launch from Baikonur.
The accidents created toxic clouds that angered local residents and environmental activists.
Most surviving saiga populations are found in Kazakhstan, Mongolia, and Russia's Kalmykia Republic.