ASTANA -- The toll in a startling die-off of saiga antelope went above 10,000 after authorities in Kazakhstan found thousands of carcasses of the critically endangered species in a northern region.
The Central Asian nation's Agriculture Ministry said on May 18 that the carcasses were found across a 16,000-hectare area in the Qostanai region over the past week.
Local authorities declared an emergency situation in the area as they struggled to dispose of the dead animals and search the steppe for more saiga carcasses.
The regional governor and senior Kazakh Agriculture Ministry officials were in the area coordinating the response to the biggest die-off of the species in recent memory. Kazakh officials initially said last week that they had found more than 100 dead animals, and the reported toll had risen to 1,000 by May 13.
On May 18, the Agriculture Ministry reiterated what it said last week: that the deaths were most-likely caused by an infection carried in the mouth and breathing passage called pasteurellosis. Officials say the carcasses bore no wounds or other signs of trauma.
The saiga antelope, with its distinctive big, 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 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union.
Deputy Agriculture Minister Erlan Nysanbaev said last week that experts had been collecting samples of soil, water, and the flesh of fallen animals and sending them to a state lab in the capital, Astana. He said preliminary test results were expected this week.
There have been sizable die-offs of saiga in the past in Kazakhstan, as well as instances in which large numbers of the animals were apparently killed by poachers for their horns, which are used in traditional Tibetan and Chinese medicine and fetch around $80 a pair on the Kazakh black market.
Activists blamed a May 2012 discovery of nearly 1,000 dead saiga antelope, also in the Qostanai region, on launches at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, which Russia uses for its space programs. Authorities said then that the cause was probably pasteurellosis, but that was never officially confirmed.
Several Russian Proton-M rockets, which use highly toxic fuel, have exploded over Kazakhstan after being launched from Baikonur, sparking concerns among local residents and environmental activists.
Most surviving saiga populations are found in Kazakhstan, Mongolia, and Russia's Kalmykia Republic.
With reporting by Kazinform and Newskaz.ru