It started in late May. When geoecologist Steffen Zuther and his colleagues arrived in central Kazakhstan to monitor the calving of one herd of saigas, a critically endangered, steppe-dwelling antelope, veterinarians in the area had already reported dead animals on the ground.

“But since there happened to be die-offs of limited extent during the last years, at first we were not really alarmed,” Zuther, the international coordinator of the Altyn Dala Conservation Initiative, told Live Science.

MYSTERY:  Nearly half of all the saigas, a critically endangered antelope that roams the steppe of Kazakhstan, have suddenly died off. (Phot0: Albert Salemgareyev)

But within four days, the entire herd — 60,000 saiga — had died. As veterinarians and conservationists tried to stem the die-off, they also got word of similar population crashes in other herds across Kazakhstan. By early June, the mass dying was over.