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Bodies of thousands of endangered seals washed up along the Caspian Sea coast in southern Russia, sparking concerns among experts.

Thousands of dead seals were spotted on Sunday at Russia’s republic of Dagestan along the Caspian Sea, with officials confirming the count so far to be at 2,500, state-run news agency RIA Novosti reported citing authorities in the North Caucasus region.

The authorities were still counting more bodies on Sunday with numbers expected to rise further. Earlier, authorities reported finding some 700 dead seals.

The Dagestan region’s ministry of natural resources and environment wrote on Telegram that a large number of seals had been found between the mouths of two rivers, the Sulak and the Shurinka.

Both rivers connect to the Caspian Sea, the largest landlocked body of water in the world, which is bordered by five countries: Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Turkmenistan.

Caspian seals have been classified as endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) red list since 2008.

Zaur Gapizov, head of the Caspian Environmental Protection Centre, said in a statement that the seals probably died about two weeks ago.

The ministry also said there is no sign that the animals died violent deaths and it appeared like “natural factors”. There is also no evidence to suggest the animals were killed or caught in fishing nets, he said.

However, an investigation has been launched into the causes with experts collecting samples from the seals. The ministry said reasons for the deaths will be established when lab results come back.

The seal population of the Caspian Sea has dwindled drastically over the decades from overhunting and industrial pollution.

Data about the number of seals in the Caspian has varied widely. But the Caspian Environmental Protection Center puts the number now at just 70,000, down from more than one million around a century ago.

Additional reporting by agencies

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