Over the past few months, saiga antelopes have been dying out by the tens of thousands in Kazakhstan. Since May, about 120,000 have died, and that number spikes to 257,000 when counting back from 2014. Especially concerning is the rapidity of the deaths: 60,000 antelopes passed over the span of just four days. The saiga are already a critically endangered species, and have seen massive die-offs in the past.
But this one has posed a conundrum for scientists, who are having a hard time identifying the cause of deaths. Recently, researchers have come up with a few theories as to what could be going on.
So have conspiracy theorists. Let's take a look, shall we?
Scientists present for the saiga calving season, when the die-off started, were able to take a close look at the environment and perform necropsies to try to figure out what happened. LiveScience reports:
Tissue samples revealed that toxins, produced by Pasteurella and possibly Clostridia bacteria, caused extensive bleeding in most of the animals' organs.
Researchers found that first the mothers, and then their young, were affected by the die-off. The dying calves were too young to have grazed on nearby vegetation, suggesting that whatever was killing the mothers was being fed to their offspring through their mothers' milk.
But, scientists say, that the bacteria are usually harmless. So there must be something else going on.
Geoecologist Steffen Zuther told LiveScience that Kazakhstan's harsh winter could have made it easier for bacteria to spread. The Saiga Conservation Alliance offers more speculation:
Triggers in domestic livestock can include sudden temperature changes associated with heavy rain and could include other stresses related to internal and/or external environmental factors including climate, pasture conditions and other infections.
The New York Times suggested back in May that "this year’s heavy rainfalls may have led to a lush growth of plant species that make saigas dangerously bloated." But the evidence is not conclusive.
The Saiga Conservation Alliance points out that the breadth of the die-off, which affected saiga in different regions, likely rules out a specific toxic agent. But it's not impossible that something poisoned the animals, per the Alliance, which notes: "toxic algae, plants or otherwise naturally occurring toxins cannot be ruled out at this stage."
And in their early report on the subject, in May, the Times pointed to other potential culprits:
Central Asia has also had heavy chemical pollution over the decades from factories and farms… There had been speculation that the saigas were poisoned by fuel from Kazakhstan’s rocket program.
But the Times notes that the rocket theory is unlikely, and the Alliance offers that "water and air analyses completed are largely within normal ranges for detectable radiation and known contaminants and pollutants," leaving the door open for less-likely explanations. Such as:
This Antelope mass death was an experiment by aliens. It is well known to the Kazakhstan government that aliens are making use of an underwater base in the Caspian Sea which Kazakhstan boarders… the aliens in the Caspian Sea base actually dislike everything about the country…including its wildlife. This experiment, could be the 1st step into aliens creating a similar bacteria that will wipe out humanity, leaving the rest of the planet untouched.
According to this theory, the animal deaths portend human death by alien, which would be a bummer.
Blood Moon apocalypse
On September 28, we'll be able to see a total lunar eclipse. This event is also referred to as a Blood Moon, and has some wondering whether it will bring the end of days. The antelope deaths are being added to the growing list of Blood Moon apocalypse warnings: like an errant fireball, an (imaginary) asteroid, and good old biblical prophecies.
Some conspiracy-leaning commenters are wondering if the very real radioactive Fukushima leaks could be connected to the mass deaths. A commenter on the website Above Top Secret responded to a facetious comment blaming Fukushima with a question—why not? The commenter continued:
Commenters on the site Revolution News also wondered if the culprit could be radiation from Fukushima.
Prayers for planet earth, indeed.
Danielle Wiener-Bronner is a news reporter.