Herds of one of Central Asia's most iconic animals, Kazakhstan's saiga antelope, are dwindling rapidly and no one seems to know why.
The Kazakh Department for Emergency Situations says more than 19,000 saiga carcasses have now been buried in the country's Qostanai region, though unofficial reports on May 20 suggested the number of dead animals may already exceed 30,000.
"It's shaping up to be a complete catastrophe," says E.J. Milner-Gulland, a U.K.-based academic who heads the Saiga Conservation Alliance, a network of conservationists working to study and protect the antelope.
"I'm afraid the animals are still dying and we are not actually getting a final number yet," she adds. "I'm expecting that number to go up quite substantially in the coming days."
The saiga, with its distinctive bulging eyes, tubular snout, and spiraled horn, is as distinctive as it is endangered. The Saiga Conservation Alliance puts the total number of individual animals in Central Asia at around 260,000, including 200,000 in west-central Kazakhstan, the largest population.
The 30,000 figure already represents the biggest die-off of the species in recent memory.
Senior officials with Kazakhstan's Agriculture Ministry and the regional governor visited the area this week to coordinate a response. So far, they're baffled by what's causing the deaths.
Officials say the carcasses bear no wounds or other signs of trauma that would indicate mass poaching -- a problem in past efforts to maintain healthy saiga populations. Instead, they say the culprit is likely the Pasteurella bacteria -- a naturally occurring bacteria that is carried in animals' mouths and nasal passages.
It's the most amazing and beautiful creature. When you see it kind of flying across the steppes in huge herds, it's just the most beautiful thing."-- E.J. Milner-Gulland of the Saiga Conservation Alliance
Milner-Gulland says that while the proximate cause of death may indeed be Pasteurella, that's probably not the whole story. Pasteurella normally kills only weaker animals that have already been stressed or sickened by something else.
"The fact that you are getting positive reports of Pasteurella doesn't mean the bacterium is the underlying reason the animals are dying," she says. "[The bacteria] is there naturally and it's a kind of opportunistic."
Milner-Gulland is reluctant to speculate on the cause of death but says current evidence points to a highly infectious disease of some kind.
That explanation is not likely to satisfy activists like Musaghali Duambekov of the Kazakh-based environmental movement Anti-Heptyl, a reference to compounds used in rocket fuel. His group traces many of the country's environmental problems to the highly toxic fuels used by Russian rockets launched from Kazakhstan's Baikonur Cosmodrome.
"I think the authorities [in Kazakhstan] are hiding the real causes of the loss of the large numbers of saiga antelope every year," he says.
"As an active member of the Anti-Heptyl movement, which has been against the [Russian] Proton rocket launches, I think the situation, among other things, is connected to the rockets, as large parts of Kazakhstan are being affected by poisonous elements on a regular basis," Duambekov says.
Several Russian Proton-M rockets in recent years have exploded over Kazakhstan after lifting off from Baikonur, sparking concerns among local residents and environmental activists.
While it's unclear to what extent environmental poisons like heptyl compounds might be harming animal populations, international experts say that's probably not what's killing off the saiga.
"I think there is no evidence to that at all," says Milner-Gulland. "We'll get toxicology reports from the environmental sampling that's being taken, and that will help us to understand one way or the other." She points out that if antelope mortality continues to spread, it will make the environmental-poisoning theory that much more untenable.
Whatever is killing off the saiga, the loss is devastating -- and not only to the species and the environment. The saiga is a living symbol of Central Asian culture.
"It's the most amazing and beautiful creature," says Milner-Gulland. "When you see it kind of flying across the steppes in huge herds, it's just the most beautiful thing."
The saiga has been the victim of several mass die-offs over the years, reaching near-extinction levels in the 1920s and again in 2003 due to poaching and over-hunting. At one point in 2003, the number of live animals fell to just 21,000.
The irony is that the most recent die-off comes just as the species was starting to recover as poaching incidents were slowing.
One source of hope is that the saiga has the capacity to rebound quickly from mass-mortality events. The females give birth fairly rapidly and are fertile from just 1 year of age.
"It's an extraordinary species," Milner-Gulland says. "Because it lives in a really harsh environment, where you have really cold winters and drought condition, it has a natural ability to rebound."
While Kazakhstan has the largest surviving saiga population, other significant populations are found in Mongolia and Russia's Kalmykia Republic.