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Gobi-Altai and Khovd Provinces, Mongolia, Feb. 7, 2017 -- Saiga antelope have been dying over the last two months in alarming numbers in the Great Lakes Depression of western Mongolia bordered by the Altai Mountains and China.
WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society) scientists working at the site with Mongolian and international partners believe around 2,500 saiga have died since December 2016 in the Durgun steppe and Khuisiin Gobi of Khovd and Gobi-Altai Provinces of Mongolia. Currently, the population of the Mongolian saiga, a unique subspecies Saiga tatarica mongolica, is only estimated to be around 10,000, so this event represents an immediate loss of 25 percent of the Mongolian saiga population.
The cause: a livestock virus known as PPR or Peste des Petits Ruminants. Scientists believe the disease affecting the Mongolian saiga was first transmitted from goats and sheep in the saiga range area in September 2016, and subsequently spilled over to saiga antelope.
“This is the first deadly infectious disease outbreak known to have occurred in the Mongolian saiga,” said Dr. Amanda Fine, a veterinarian and Associate Director of the WCS Wildlife Health Program in Asia. “In the past, pasteurellosis was recorded as a cause of mortality in some saiga but never with such rapid spread and deadly results. The situation is tragic and widespread. Along with the impact to the saiga population, this event has the potential to produce cascading catastrophic consequences on the ecosystem. For example, ibex and argali may be affected and rare snow leopards may suffer the effects of a diminished prey base.”
A WCS team, including WCS Mongolia Program Director Dr. Enkhtuvshin Shiilegdamba and WCS biologist Dr. Buuveibaatar Bayarbaatar, has supported the FAO/OIE Crisis Management Center and Animal Health rapid response team. The rapid response includes collecting samples from dead saiga, conducting necropsies (animal autopsies) on fresh saiga carcasses and evaluating sick saiga, and providing recommendations with Dr. Richard Kock of the Royal Veterinary College, UK, and a team of Mongolian veterinary experts.
The team is also collecting samples from the dead saiga to evaluate the age and sex of the affected animals and to determine how best to help this species recover from such a devastating event.
“Currently, the rate of saiga mortality appears to be decreasing but there is no guarantee that the outbreak is ending. It may continue into the spring as well,” said Dr. Fine.
The Mongolian National Emergency Committee, working actively to stop the disease outbreak, consists of the National Emergency Management Committee, the Ministry of Food and Agriculture, the Ministry of Environment and the General Agency for Specialized Investigation. The committee members have arranged a working group to provide detailed recommendations and support which is led by the Ministry of Environment and Tourism and consists of the National Emergency Management Agency, the Ministry of Food and Agriculture, the Veterinary and Animal Breeding Agency, the State Central Veterinary Laboratory, the General Agency for Specialized Investigation, Institute of Experimental and Exploratory Biology, the UN FAO, WCS and WWF.
WCS’s Dr. Fine said, “Overall, WCS is working to identify what proportion and age of the saiga population is affected so that we can estimate the future risks to the remaining population, if there are other secondary bacterial infections ongoing, and how to prevent another die-off in the upcoming spring and summer when the saiga birthing period occurs and large groups of saiga gather. We need to ensure the disease does not spread to unaffected populations, especially in Shargiin Gobi.”
PPR was diagnosed in Mongolia for the first time in September 2016 in livestock and for the first time in Mongolian saiga in January 2017. Livestock in affected areas have undergone vaccinations; herd immunity level is an important indicator of effective vaccination and needs to be well monitored.
Besides PPR outbreaks, some poaching of saiga for horns and illegal collecting of horns from dead saiga is occurring and requires monitoring and notification of local law enforcement officials.
Globally, saiga populations suffered a dramatic decline of over 90 percent in recent decades due to intense poaching pressure for their horns which are used in traditional medicines.
“The best way to prevent PPR is through further immunization of livestock in not only saiga range areas but other affected species range areas. Stress-free conditions for recovering saiga and access to food and water resources should be provided, in order to save the last population of Mongolian saiga from extinction,” said Dr. Fine.
The Mongolian Emergency Management Committee is working tirelessly to control and stop this outbreak. However, the current economic crisis in Mongolia is an impediment to implementing effective control efforts and thus local officials are seeking and requesting international communities for support WCS is engaged with the global conservation community to mobilize various funds to Mongolia for emergency and long-term saiga protection and conservation efforts.