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Saigas in distress - The mystery of the dead antelopes

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In May 2015, the terrible news broke: More than 200,000 saiga antelopes had died on the vast Kazakh steppe. The reason was unclear. But whatever it was, it wiped out 90 percent of the population. It was a catastrophe for a species already threatened with extinction through poaching.

First, the animals get diarrhea. Then foam seeps from their noses and mouths. They begin to stagger, their legs buckle. In the end, they lie on the ground and suffocate. Death arrives just a few hours after symptoms first appear.

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Mass mortality

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Kazakhstan is home to the world's largest saiga population. The Betpak-Dala herd in the center of the country was once the largest of the saiga groups. They roam the Altyn Dala or "Golden Steppe". The mass die-off in May 2015 extinguished almost the entire herd.


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Saiga antelopes have experienced mass mortalities in the past, just never on this scale. Now, we know what infection caused the catastrophe, but not where it came from.

Many questions remain unanswered: 
How did the epidemic appear at different locations simultaneously? And why did all the infected saigas die and not just the weakened ones?

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To solve the riddle, a team of scientists gathered on the Kazakh steppe.

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Steffen Zuther, Expedition Leader

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Richard Kock, Antelope Researcher

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Steffen and Richard start their journey. Together with their colleagues, they want to find out why so many saigas perished and, most importantly, how those left are doing now.

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Researchers around the world have been trying to figure out just what caused hundreds of thousands of saigas to die. Theories abound. But so far, not one has been proven.


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A journey into the unknown

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The expedition team is a motley crew of biologists, ecologists, vets and conservationists. They hail from Kazakhstan, Germany, England, Costa Rica, India and Guatemala. They all want the same thing: To save the saigas.

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Last chance saloon. 
Everything but the kitchen sink:

40 kilograms of potatoes
10 kilograms of onions
15 kilograms of carrots
5 kilograms of tomatoes
1 kilogram of garlic
5 kilograms of rice
20 packets of pasta
10 heads of cabbage
30 tins of fish
10 kilograms of cookies
50 loaves of bread
500 liters of water
A live sheep

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Steffen has been living in Kazakhstan for 10 years. Each year, he spends several weeks on the steppe. His job is to protect this ecosystem.

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The Steppe comes to life

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The search area is almost the size of France.
Just a few thousand saiga still live in this vast wilderness. A needle in a haystack, as the old adage goes.

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Needle in a haystack

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Steffen is worried. The only two animals with transmitters have broken away from the big herd. That's unusual and makes the search more complicated.

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Rangers know the steppe inside out. Their task is to protect saigas from poachers. They should know where the animals are. Still, there are problems.

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Confusion

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The end of each day is the same: Find a spot to camp, erect the tents, discuss the situation, eat. And, most importantly, gather strength to continue searching for saigas tomorrow.

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Another problem emerges. It's rained a lot in the past few weeks. Parts of the steppe are flooded, cutting off the way. Steffen and Richard fear they will not be able to reach the big herd.

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The first traces

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The tracks lead nowhere. For some 1,000 kilometers, the researchers labor on through the steppe. The saigas are still nowhere to be seen.

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The team reaches the place where the calamity began. 5,000 saigas are buried under this single hill.  

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The bacteria responsible for the deaths of so many animals is called Pasteurella multocida.
It's usually harmless but can become deadly. If it does, the animals will die within a few hours.

Just before the great die-off, temperatures dropped by 30 degrees Celsius. The animals had already shed their winter coats. The theory: The stress of the cold weakened their immune systems and opened the way for infection.


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The deadly bacteria

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The epidemic is nothing short of a disaster. Saigas are already on the "Red List of Threatened Species". Thousands of males are slaughtered each year for their horns. Saiga horn is a coveted substance in Chinese medicine. A kilo can fetch up to $4,000 (3,638 euros). Poaching is on the increase.


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Not a saiga in sight. Just the constant, buzz, bite and itch of mosquitos.

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These critters get on everybody's nerves. 

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The expedition is stuck.
Each muddy pool costs valuable time.
And energy.

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The research troop has been on the road for five days. Nerves are frayed. Will they find the animals? Perhaps it's already too late?

Once calving season is over, the saigas will move on and out of reach.

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Eat, drink, cook - all under open skies.
The researchers are in luck: The weather is playing along.

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Steffen and Richard can't sleep. If they don't find the animals, it will all have been for nothing.

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Everyone is wishing for one thing:
Hoards of healthy saigas.

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Nobody dared believe it would happen, but the following day it finally does.  

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Rangers have spotted the big herd.
They're just a few hours drive away.

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Saigas in sight

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The journey continues on foot. Searching for calves requires a long trek with a quiet step.

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The animals are gathered by a dried-out lake.
Calving season is nearly over. The researchers have arrived just in time.

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Inventory

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Start 360° panorama

Start 360° panorama

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Richard examines around a dozen calves.
He gives the all-clear. They're healthy.

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Steffen and Richard can't spread the good news for the moment. Internet access is hard to come by in the remote camp on the steppe. But the team is relieved. All of the tension of the past few days evaporates.



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In the distance

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For the sheep, the journey comes to an end.

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They are rare, extremely shy and most of all - they are essential for the ecosystem. Each year, the saigas roam 1,000 kilometers through the steppe with many other species in tow. The ground is made fertile with dung and the churning of hooves.

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Richard Kock is one of the world's leading antelope researchers. He's particularly in awe of saigas.

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Nomads from the ice age

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No mass mortality this year. And because of the saigas' high birth-rates, the Betpak-Dala population can begin its slow recovery. Still, the fear of renewed catastrophe remains.

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Return to go

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A web documentary by Inga Sieg

Camera & photos:
Axel Warnstedt

Sound:
Moritz Polomski

Video editing:
Klaudia Begic

Producers: 
Global Ideas

Executive producer:
Manuela Kasper-Claridge

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Frankfurt Zoological Society (FZS)

Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity of Kazakhstan (ACBK)

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