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Cracking a deadly mystery

July 5, 2016

On the Kazakh steppes roams an strange creature - the saiga antelope. Poached for its horns, the animal is endangered. Now it's facing a new threat in the form of a mysterious die-off that is baffling scientists.

Saiga antelopes
Image: Axel Warnstedt

Steppe ghosts seeking saigas

Project goal: Protecting and conserving the steppes and semi-desert ecosystems of central Kazakhstan; expanding the saiga antelope population and researching the mass saiga die-off
Project partners: Frankfurt Zoological Society (FZS), Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity of Kazakhstan (ACBK), Committee for Forestry and Wildlife, Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Fauna & Flora International
Project area: The Altyn Dala in central Kazakhstan - an area almost the size of France
Biodiversity: saiga antelopes, steppe wolves, jackals, black vultures, European ground squirrel, steppe eagle, and others

They look like the wise-cracking, big-nosed television alien Alf - their long snout is their most prominent feature. But the saiga antelope of Kazakhstan's vast grass steppes is sought after for its horns. Rampant poaching brought the species to the brink of extinction after the collapse of the Soviet Union. But massive, long-term conservation efforts helped numbers bounce back. Then disaster struck - a sudden and mysterious mass die-off swept through the population in 2015. A year later, experts are still baffled as to its causes. Conservation work experienced a major setback. DW follows the trail of the saiga and the perplexing events.
A film by Inga Sieg