As Antelope Die-Off Ends, The Mystery Deepens

Nearly half the world’s population of the saiga died in just the past few weeks. Now, scientists are digging in to find out why.

By Vicki Croke

FAO:Sergei Khomenko saiga

Steffen Zuther, acting director of the Association for the biodiversity of Kazakhstan, was among the first witnesses on the scene. Photo: FAO/Sergei Khomenko.

The dying may be over but the accounting has just begun.

More than a hundred thousand antelope have perished in one area in just a few weeks and scientists are left with no idea—yet—of what caused it or why it has extinguished itself.

That’s the strange and deadly mystery playing out right now in Kazakhstan among the herds of a critically endangered kind of antelope called the saiga. The herd animals have dropped dead in the thousands—at least 127,000 gone, according to the official estimate, since mid-May.

It seems to have stopped as mysteriously and abruptly as it began, leaving perhaps only half the world’s population (about 250,000 last year) of saiga alive.

Steffen Zuther-dead saiga

Steffen Zuther observed the devastation: whole herds lying dead—the carcasses of calves curled up at the bellies of their dead mothers. Photo: Steffen Zuther.

Last month, biologists and conservationists came to the saiga calving areas to see the beginning of life—babies being born by the thousands—but instead, what they witnessed was the end of life—with the carcasses of tens of thousands strewn over the terrain. Steffen Zuther, acting director of the Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity of Kazakhstan, was among the first witnesses on the scene. On May 10 and 11 and in the days that followed, he observed the devastation: whole herds lying dead—the carcasses of calves curled up at the bellies of their dead mothers.

In a Skype interview from Astana, Kazakhstan, Zuther told me about the start of this die-off. Within two days of his arrival in the field, he says, “most of the calving herd was dead.”

The catastrophic collapse was reported in New Scientist:

The animals began dying from an unidentified cause around 10 May. The death toll soared within days to 27,000, at which point the Kazakh government requested help from the secretariat of the convention [UN Convention on Migratory Species.]. A team of vets, led by Richard Kock of the Royal Veterinary College in Hatfield, UK, flew out on Friday.

“It’s very dramatic and traumatic, with 100 per cent mortality,” Kock told New Scientist from Betpak-Dala in central Kazakhstan. “I know of no example in history with this level of mortality, killing all the animals and all the calves.” The animals die through severe diarrhoea and difficulty breathing.

Zuther says the die-off has essentially ended, but the race is on to find the cause. Scientists are on scene, conducting necropsies, or animal autopsies, and analyzing tissue. Though they think two kinds of bacteria (pasteurella and clostridia) have contributed to the deaths, they don’t believe they are the main culprits. That’s because these kinds of bacteria are usually present in healthy saiga as well. Most likely, that means something is affecting the immune system and allowing the bacteria to turn deadly…


Bucking The Trend: Uganda’s Elephants On The Rise

Despite unprecedented losses all around, Uganda’s elephant population continues to increase.

By Vicki Croke

elephant and calf-A Plumptre-WCS

Photo: A. Plumptre/WCS.

Uganda’s doing something right elephant-wise. While elephants, besieged by poachers across so many African nations, are dying in the tens of thousands every year (it’s estimated that 96 elephants are killed in Africa each day), a new aerial survey shows that their numbers are increasing in Uganda. And the gains are significant, especially for a species for whom reproduction is such a slow process. The population, which was estimated at 1,000 in 1985, now stands at 5,000, according to just-released figures from The Wildlife Conservation Society, which supported the survey. The aerial survey is part of “The Great Elephant Census,” a two-year effort, conducted by the group Elephants without Borders, to compile accurate information on elephant numbers and distribution across nearly two dozen African countries. (The survey is funded by Paul G. Allen, a Microsoft co-founder.) Rampant poaching in the 1970s and ‘80s decimated Uganda’s elephant population and drove the animals into the confines of more protected parks. But the tide began turn in the 1990s. Even as other countries have struggled, the Uganda Wildlife Authority and conservation partners, including WCS, began to gain some traction in saving elephants.

Elephant acacia-A Plumptre-WCS

Photo: A. Plumptre/WCS.

Conservationists credit better protection in key parks as well as government support as important factors in the turnaround for elephant management in this country…


A Kenyan Community Helps Rhinos Come Home

The arduous 10-day effort to translocate 20 critically endangered rhinos to former rangelands in Northern Kenya is in high gear this week.

By Vicki Croke

kilifi-first meeting

Samburu warriors got to touch a rhino for the first time in their lives. In fact, they had never even seen a photo of one. They came to Lewa Wildlife Conservancy to learn about protecting these animals in advance of this week’s translocation of 20 rhinos. This photo, by Ami Vitale, won second prize in the nature category of the 2015 World Press Photo Contest, which has now been collected in a book.

Earlier this year, a photograph of Samburu warriors in Kenya touching a rhino calf for the first time in their lives won a World Press Photo award. There was sadness to the story of Kalifi the rhino—his mother had been killed by poachers—and there was sadness in the warriors’ story too—they had grown up in a once rhino-rich land that now held none.

But the inherent hope expressed in that photo—for new life and reconnection—is being realized this week. A huge and arduous 10-day effort is underway across miles of bumpy and remote roads to translocate 20 critically endangered Eastern black rhinos to lands in Samburu county in Northern Kenya that have been without the species for 25 years.

loading rhino for transport

The first black rhino, a female, is loaded into the translocation box. Courtesy of Northern Ranglands Trust.

And the hands that are captured patting Kalifi in that iconic photo will now be helping to protect the rhinos in their new turf.

It’s taken the will and commitment of a local community, several conservation organizations, three national parks, a council of elders, 20 satellite transmitters (one per animal), anti-poaching training for local rangers, to tick off a few components, to bring these magnificent rhinos, ranging in age from six to 20, to a place where the residents are banding together to receive and protect them…


What’s Got The King Of Counting Tigers Growling?

There’s great hope for tigers in India, but miscalculated census numbers don’t help, says revered big cat expert Ullas Karanth.

By Vicki Croke

Young tiger-Ullas-WCS-camera trap

A healthy tiger cub triggering a camera trap embodies the future of the big cats in India “If you can expand this strictly protected area,” Dr. Karanth says, “potentially we could have 5,000 or 10,000 tigers in India, no problem.” Photo: Ullas Karanth/WCS.

Believe it or not, there’s a right way and a wrong way to count tigers.

So when India announced recently that it’s most recent tiger survey revealed that the endangered big cats had increased by a whopping 30 percent to 2,226, Ullas Karanth, one of the most revered tiger experts in the world didn’t disagree with the enthusiasm or optimism over the future of the country’s iconic cat.

But he did disagree with the numbers. And that’s not just a quibble. It’s a belief that a miscalculation over how many tigers there are, and, just as important, where exactly they live, could botch the chances for what can be a population in ascendance.

Julie Larson-WCS-Ullas Karanth

WCS’s Ullas Karanth has spent a life among tigers. Photo: Julie Larson/WCS.

In the wake of that much reported study, we sat down with the man who — in part through the use of camera trapping — revolutionized tiger censusing back in 1991 and is now the Wildlife Conservation Society’s director of science for Asia. We asked him what’s at stake, how the population can be adequately quantified, and how he views the future of tigers in general.

“In the same places where there were less than 50 to 60 tigers, now I put my cameras and I get 400 tigers—they have come back.”

The good news is that this very sober scientist does believe in miracles. Especially where tigers are concerned, because he’s seen a tiger miracle take place once already in India. He grew up in southern India, in the very area where he now conducts his tiger research. But back when he was a boy, the forests were pretty empty…


How To Speak Elephant

From a trunk-in-the-mouth “I’m sorry” to a head-shaking “Don’t you dare!” Caitlin O’Connell decodes the body language of elephants.

By Vicki Croke

Oconnell2015-friendly trunks

Elephants “kind of wear their hearts on their trunks. Their trunks are extremely expressive of their mood,” says Caitlin O’Connell. She should know. By closely observing elephants at Etosha National Park in Namibia part of each year for the past 20 years, O’Connell has become bilingual in a way. Each gesture, ear flap, trunk poke, and even penis pose can convey meaning. If you know what to look for.

Elephant Don by Caitlin O'Connell

Caitlin O’Connell’s latest book offers a rare glimpse inside the world of male elephants. Her work of fiction (an Ebook mystery), “Ivory Ghosts” is just out too.

And O’Connell knows what to look for. Lucky for us, she’s willing to clue us in. In her latest book, “Elephant Don: The Politics of a Pachyderm Posse,” just out this month, the gifted translator of all things elephant, provides a front row seat on a long-running soap opera, which has been cast with some very big stars.

From two observation areas overlooking a reliable water source, O’Connell, a faculty member at Stanford University, watches a steady stream of towering animals as they arrive and interact. By night, the family groups, made up of experienced females with their sisters, daughters, and children, come to drink.

But the days belong to the big boys: The males, who arrive alone or in groups, to meet, greet, drink, play, insult each other, challenge each other, test loyalties, fight, and even forgive.

So much of elephant research concerns matriarchs and the family groups they lead. O’Connell is one of the few researchers to focus on male elephants, and her work has proved that they are much more social and interactive than was thought before.

O'connell in the field.

Caitlin O’Connell photographing her elephants at the Mushara water hole in Etosha National Park in Namibia.

Being the top elephant and staying there isn’t easy. It requires bulk, strength, social smarts, political strategizing, and sometimes luck. O’Connell teaches us this by telling the story of the reigning king, Greg, and his pals, rivals, and neighbors, including Kevin, Mike (the gentle giant), Congo Conner, Prince Charles, Willie Nelson, Stoly, Abe, and Dave. We get to know these characters as we do family or friends. They feel familiar because O’Connell’s body language translations create nuanced portraits of each animal, illuminating the distinct personality of each…

READ MORE on WBUR’s The Wild Life

The Secrets Of Gift-Giving Crows

By Vicki Croke

Joe McKenna-Flickr

Joe McKenna/Flickr Creative Commons

It’s an intriguing headline: “Seattle Girl Befriends Neighborhood Crows, Making Bird Lovers Everywhere Jealous.”

It ran over Audubon online’s story about Gabi Mann, an 8-year-old girl in Seattle who has befriended a group of crows in her neighborhood by putting food out for them. Gabi and her family report that for the past couple of years, in an exchange—or just out of pure friendship—the birds have been leaving the girl small, often shiny items, which the family says are gifts: small pieces of brown glass, a bead, a button, a paper clip. Her favorite is a little heart pendant.

As soon as I read that story, I wanted to know more about it, especially because I had had a fun friendship years ago with a group of crows in my neighborhood, a friendship that had been coached by Kevin McGowan, a crow expert with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

First, I read what John Marzluff, a crow expert and author, and professor of wildlife science at the University of Washington, had to say about this to the BBC News Magazine. He pointed out that crows do give gifts among themselves and that they certainly interact with people and quickly learn things when food is involved:

“If you want to form a bond with a crow, be consistent in rewarding them,” advises John Marzluff, professor of wildlife science at the University of Washington. He specialises in birds, particularly crows and ravens…

READ MORE on WBUR’s The Wild Life