ALMATY — Around 12,000 endangered Saiga antelopes have died in an apparent epidemic in Kazakhstan, an official said on Wednesday, calling it a "catastrophe" for the rare breed.
"Around 12,000 Saigas have been found dead," the head of the sanitary and epidemiological department in western Kazakhstan, Serik Imanukulov, told AFP.
"This situation with the deaths of the antelopes is a large-scale tragedy. It's a natural catastrophe," he said.
Tests show the antelopes, which have distinctive bulbous noses, died from pasteurellosis, an infection that attacks the lungs, Imankulov said.
"If the figure of 12,000 is confirmed, it's simply a catastrophe," said Olga Pereladova, a Saiga expert and head of the Central Asia programme for the environmental group WWF.
"That means the illness is already very widespread and it will continue," Pereladova told AFP.
While the Saiga have suffered from pasteurellosis epidemics before, this spring's outbreak has hit particularly hard, she said.
"The animals are weak after an especially harsh winter with a lot of snow that made it very hard for them to find food."
The epidemic appears to have peaked, Kazakh official Imankulov said.
"We can say the outbreak of the infection has passed and come to a close," Imankulov said. "The numbers of the dead are rising because we are finding bodies."
"I do not think there will be new cases of mass deaths among the saiga at present."
The Saiga, which lives on the steppes of Kazakhstan, as well as in Mongolia and Russia, has seen its numbers fall from around one million in the 1990s to fewer than 100,000.
The population fell drastically due to uncontrolled hunting and demand for the antelope's horns in Chinese medicine.
The Kazakh authorities estimated that around 81,000 of the migrating animals lived in the Central Asian country before the current epidemic.
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