“Rapid, stunning and complete” die-off of animals near nuclear site — 150,000+ antelopes bleeding from internal organs, pits brimming with corpses — Experts completely baffled: “It’s really unheard of… 100% mortality, I know of no example in history like it… Doesn’t make any sense” (PHOTOS)

Published: September 8th, 2015 at 6:30 pm ET
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NBC News, Sep 3, 2015 (emphasis added): Now, the researchers have found clues as to how more than half of the [Kazakhstan saiga antelope] herd, counted at 257,000 as of 2014, died so rapidly. Bacteria clearly played a role in the saigas’ demise. But exactly how these normally harmless microbes could take such a toll is still a mystery, [Steffen Zuther, with the Altyn Dala Conservation Initiative] said. “The extent of this die-off, and the speed it had, by spreading throughout the whole calving herd and killing all the animals, this has not been observed for any other species,” Zuther said. “It’s really unheard of.”… Tissue samples revealed that toxins, produced by Pasteurella and possibly Clostridia bacteria, caused extensive bleeding in most of the animals’ organs. But Pasteurella is found normally [and] usually doesn’t cause harm unless the animals have weakened immune systems.

Live Science, Sep 2, 2015: [In] four days, the entire herd — about 60,000 saigas — had died off. Workers struggled to keep up with the mass dying, quickly burying the animals that died in heaps. Scientists were completely baffled… necropsies revealed that bacterial toxins from a few species of pathogen had caused bleeding in all of the animals’ internal organs… [Pasteurella] rarely causes harm unless their immune system has already been weakened by something else. And genetic analysis suggested this was a garden-variety pathogenic form of the microbe, which has never caused such a rapid, stunning and complete crash in a population before. All told, more than 150,000 saiga have died [which] may be an underestimate, as that number only counts saiga who have been buried…

New York Times, May 29, 2015: The numbers and images that describe a mass dying of the critically endangered saiga… in the Betpak-dala region of Kazakhstan are stunning. Hastily bulldozed pits brim with corpses… The enormous new saiga die-off is particularly devastating… there had been previous die-offs… in 1955, 1956, 1958, 1967, 1969, 1974, 1981 and 1988.

Richard Kock, Royal Veterinary College: “It’s very dramatic and traumatic, with 100-percent mortality…. I know of no example in history with this level of mortality.”

BBC, Jun 1, 2015: An unknown environmental trigger is thought to have caused two types of normally benign bacteria found in the antelopes’ gut to turn deadly… “Over two days (in the herd I was studying) 80% of the calving population died,” [Zuther] told the BBC. The whole herd then died within two weeks… Two different bacteria, pasteurelosis and clostridia, have been found in every dead animal studied. These bacteria are naturally found in the animals… so something must have reduced the immunity of the animals… “There’s no infectious disease that can work like this,” said Prof Kock… losing 100% percent of some populations within two weeks “doesn’t make any sense” from a biological or evolutionary perspective, Prof Kock said… all individuals affected by the sudden die-off are from the largest remaining Betpak-dala population

U.S. National Research Council, 2001: Radionuclide Contamination at Kazakhstan’s Semipalatinsk Test Site — 498 nuclear tests were conducted [and] vented underground detonations occurred through 1989… some Kazakh scientists opine that residual radioactivity is responsible for ongoing health impacts… Pathologies in cohorts born after the atmospheric tests appeared to be significantly higher… [Prof. Saim Balmukhanov, the prominent director of the Institute of Oncology] made a particular case that various pathways of exposure to plutonium particles from the soil may be a causative agent… There is little doubt that people living in the STS region suffer from a range of adverse health effects, including high rates of infectious and noninfectious diseases, cancer, and hematological disorders… The STS is located in the plains of the dry Eurasian steppe… Steppe fauna includes… the migratory saiga antelope… [I]nformation exists suggesting that plants at the test site can hyperaccumlate radionuclides… During meetings with ecologists from Kazakhstan State National University a claim was made that in the past, there were 100 species of higher plants at the STS, now there are fewer than 40. Many animal species have disappeared

Full BBC broadcast here (starts at 17:45 in)

Published: September 8th, 2015 at 6:30 pm ET
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