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- Courtesy of IFLScience (whose full name you will be spared):
Stephen Luntz | May 26th 2015 wrote:They look like something drawn by Dr Seuss, but saiga antelopes are a real thing. Unfortunately, we can't be sure if they will be a thing for much longer, because at the current rate they could be extinct within a few weeks, at least in the wild.
Saiga antelopes are not particularly rare for a large mammal, with well over 100,000 surviving. However, they have been classified as endangered since hunting slashed their numbers by at least three quarters in the 1990s, after the breakup of the Soviet Union weakened poaching controls. In the past few weeks an estimated 85,000 have died, and that figure, released on Friday, may already be out of date. Worse still, no one knows why.
In 2014, a study by the government of Kazakstahn reported just over a quarter of a million saiga in the country. A smaller number live in Russia and Mongolia, which so far have not been reported to have been affected in the same way.
A fortnight ago, reports appeared of dead saiga being found. Since then, the number of deaths has risen terrifyingly quickly, from hundreds, to thousands, to now tens of thousands. Less Dr Seuss and more horror movie.
A bacterial infection called pasteurellosis is considered to be the most likely cause, but experts in animal disease are flying in to investigate further. The Kazak ministry of agriculture says that large die-offs have happened before, but the loss of a third of a population in such a short time is almost unprecedented, not just for saiga, but for any long-lived species. It is unclear why a disease that was already widespread among saigas, and usually only killed those weakened by lack of food or other diseases, should turn lethal so quickly.
“It’s shaping up to be a complete catastrophe,” EJ Milner-Gulland, head of the Saiga Conservation Alliance told the Guardian. She added, “I’m afraid the animals are still dying and we are not actually getting a final number yet. I’m expecting that number to go up quite substantially in the coming days.”
The saiga have rebounded from population crashes before, having dropped as low as 21,000 after poaching peaked in 2003. Population crashes reduce genetic diversity, potentially making species more vulnerable to new diseases or mutated versions of old ones. On the other hand, the saiga's residence in regions prone to bitter winters and severe droughts has created a capacity to breed quickly when good times come along.
- Source: http://www.iflscience.com/plants-and-an ... nted-rates
So what do you think?
I think the fact that saigas are critically endangered should raise questions about the genetic diversity of the species. It is never good to be small in numbers as a collective metapopulation. I would be very surprised if saigas managed to continue without human intervention. Unless you are a hermaphroditic flower or an asexually reproducing organism like bacteria are, small populations lead to a loss of genetic diversity, which correlates in many cases to a loss in health and breeding viability. In the words of one of my favourite bloggers, Christopher Landauer: "I predict that one day we will see the same story written about Cheetahs. They are so inbred with limited immune diversity that one little mutation in a bacteria or virus could wipe huge swaths of them out overnight."
As a geneticist and a biologist, it pains me to think how people will mourn over the loss of a charismatic megafauna like the cheetah and even the saiga, and twist it into fuel for the "humans are bad, the planet is dying" story. Species going extinct is as old as life itself. Granted, the amount of human influence between the cheetah and the saiga are different.