In 2010 and 2015 mass die-off events have been observed in Saiga antelope of the Ural and Betpak-Dala populations in Kazakhstan. In intervening years, smaller die-offs of hundreds to a few thousands of animals have also been observed. These are the first such reported incidents after the dramatic decline in numbers in the 1990s, which led to the current status of a critically endangered species. Only a few thousand animals were left in 2003. Hunting of Saiga antelopes is forbidden and the species is protected by international conventions. Mass die-off events receive a lot of attention nationally and internationally, however, they always seem to arrive somehow unexpected, which was the case in 2010-2011, leading to little coordinated and late reactions from various institutions, governmental departments, laboratories, and NGOs. All parties involved were in some way responsible for the investigation, but their individual reactions were neither coordinated nor appropriate to identify the definite cause of these earlier incidents.
The government of Kazakhstan and other stakeholders have therefore initiated a process for improved reaction to such incidents in order to minimise the risks for the health of saiga, other wild and domestic animals, and human health. This is based on regular biological and health monitoring of the population especially during aggregation and calving in spring.
As documents from Soviet time show, mass die-offs happened in some years with an irregular pattern and can consequently also be expected in the future. Monitoring will increase the sensitivity to abnormal mortality and will help to ensure, that reaction to these incidents is fast, effective and involves institutions and experts working in an interdisciplinary manner. However, this process needs to be formally adopted by the Government of Kazakhstan and an appropriate unit of experts set up to ensure effective and timely reaction to any unusual mortality event affecting wildlife and specifically saiga antelope.
These Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) are meant to provide the framework for an improved reaction on disease outbreaks in wildlife, from the discovery of the outbreak to the final diagnosis and provision of information to the public. They should be followed by all involved organisations and agencies and thereby improve the efficiency of their actions.
The SOP have initially been produced as a result of two workshops in Kazakhstan in 2013, involving various veterinary authorities, ministries and researchers from Kazakhstan, and further developed in 2016. Towards the end of 2016, the Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity of Kazakhstan compiled the final version, consisting of the main procedures and several annexes.
The development of these Standard Operating Procedures has been made possible through financial support by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN (FAO) and by the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS) through the Saiga Conservation Alliance. Additional support was provided by Fauna & Flora International, Frankfurt Zoological Society and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in the framework of the Altyn Dala Conservation Initiative.
Contributions have been made by: Prof. Dr. Richard Kock, Royal Veterinary College, UK Dr. Wendy Beauvais, Royal Veterinary College, UK Dr. Camilla Benfield, Royal Veterinary College, UK Dr. Sasan Fereidouni, WESCA Wildlife Network Dr. Sergey Khomenko, FAO, Italy Dr. Eric Morgan, University of Bristol, UK Dr. Adilkasym Zhakipbayev, Kazakhstan Dr. Mukhit Orynbayev, Research Institute for Problems of Biological Safety, Kazakhstan Steffen Zuther, Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity of Kazakhstan, Kazakhstan Albert Salemgareyev, Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity of Kazakhstan Some annexes of this document have been developed on the basis of “Necropsy of Wild Animals” by Munson L. (University of California, 2004).