A high-ranking Kazakh space official, addressing suggestions that a massive die-off of endangered saiga antelope was linked to rocket crashes, has said that at this point "we do not see a direct link."
But Kazakhstan's Space Agency deputy chief Meirbek Moldabekov did not rule out any possible causes for the mysterious deaths of 90,000 antelope, accounting for about one-third of the country's saiga population.
Speaking during a session of a parliamentary committee in Astana on May 26, he acknowledged that the deaths in the Qostanai, Aqmola, and Aqtobe regions "could be, of course, linked to ecology, as well as to the Cosmodrome" in Baikonur.
The Baikonur Cosmodrome, which Russia uses as a launch center for its space program, lies less than 300 kilometers from the Qostanai and Aqtobe provinces, and 600 kilometers from Aqmola Province.
Speaking to journalists after the committee session, Moldabekov announced that Moscow had agreed to fund a joint study on the environmental and health impact of a May 16 Proton-M rocket crash.
The Proton-M has come under scrutiny in recent years after several of the rockets, which carry a highly toxic fuel, exploded over Kazakhstan after being launched from Baikonur.
Activists blamed the 2012 discovery of nearly 1,000 dead saigas in the Qostanai region on the rocket launches. Authorities said at the time that the cause was probably the bacterial infection pasteurellosis, but the diagnosis was never officially confirmed.
Kazakh authorities have said the recent deaths of saiga antelope, too, could have been caused by pasteurellosis. Samples taken from the dead animals, soil, and air in affected areas have been sent to a lab in Astana, but the results of the testing have not yet been revealed.
Kazakhstan is the primary habitat for the saiga, which can also be found in Mongolia and Russia's Kalmykia Republic.
The animals are known for their distinctive big, bulging eyes, tubular snout, and spiraled horn, which is used in traditional Chinese medicine.
Its numbers, once in the millions, were severely depleted after the fall of the Soviet Union by hunters and poachers looking to make money off the sale of saiga meat and horns.
Authorities in the Qostanai, Aqtobe, and Aqmola regions have declared an emergency as they struggle to dispose of the dead saigas and search the steppe for more carcasses.
Officials say the carcasses bear no wounds or other signs of trauma.
The global saiga population was thought to have fallen to as low as about 21,000 in 2003, when the species was declared critically endangered.
More recently, groups such as the Saiga Conservation Alliance have reported that conservation efforts appear to be working, with the animals' numbers possibly rising to more than 250,000.
There have been sizable die-offs of saigas in the past decade in Kazakhstan, as well as instances in which large numbers of the animals were apparently killed by poachers for their horns, which fetch around $80 a pair on the Kazakh black market.
Based on reporting by Kazinform and KazTAG