The Silent Saiga Saga
Why did more than 150,000 saiga antelopes die in just three days?
Anyone who tuned in for "Grasslands", the 5th installment of the BBC’s mesmerising series 'Planet Earth II', would have seen "relics from the ice age," the saiga antelopes, munching on the plains of Kazakhstan. While we watched two babies tucked away in the grass, David Attenborough told us "saiga antelopes always birth twins so their numbers grow rapidly when grass is plentiful." What we weren’t told is that while these scenes were being filmed, 150,000 antelopes dropped dead in three days.
These distinctive antelopes with their bulbous noses are critically endangered. In the past 15 years they have declined by 95%, the fastest mammal decline ever recorded. Aside from mass die-offs the decline can be attributed to poachers who target the males for their horns to export to the Chinese medicine trade as well as for meat.
But what caused the mass die off in 2015? The unlikely suspect was an opportunistic bacteria, Pasteurella mutocida, which caused hemorrhagic septicemia. Even less likely is that the bacteria are normally found in the animal’s respiratory tract, which begs the questions why these usually harmless bacteria became so virulent. As E.J Milner-Gulland, a leading saiga scientist, writes in an article for The Conversation, that the evidence suggests "a combination of short-term but landscape-scale weather variation and physiological stress from calving" caused the virulence. Milner-Gulland also warned "with climate change these types of events will become more rather than less prevalent". The good news is that the antelopes are showing signs of recovery. In May of this year Kazakhstan's Ministry of Agriculture performed a population survey and found that populations are on the increase again with over 108,000 adult saiga antelope recorded.
In the run up to the airing of the episode, the crew that filmed the saiga antelopes spoke about witnessing such catastrophic death. They believed they were watching the extinction of the species happening before their eyes. However, we as the viewers were not aware of this. We were not even told that saiga antelopes are critically endangered. Planet Earth II draws in millions of viewers each episode, providing an excellent opportunity to educate audiences about the dangers and threats the wildlife we so enjoy watching, face. Instead the segment on the saiga closes with a panning shot of hundreds of saiga grazing on the plains. An audience couldn’t be blamed for thinking these populations were bountiful and well.
Not one to say a bad work against the legendary David Attenborough but is a critique of the Planet Earth series that it shields us from the truth? Viewers have noted the number of times the prey gets away, leaving the big cat looking on hungry. Do producers believe viewers would switch off if they were confronted with the harsh reality of life, do people really want to watch thousands of dying antelopes at 8pm on a Sunday evening? With more misses than kills maybe the film crew simply only captured the escapes or with 60 minute episodes and so much diversity to show there simply isn't time to delve into the complexities of every story. Who knows the real reason, but one thing that can be said, the pristine landscapes we see on our screens are not always all that they seem.