Battling a Virus to Save Saiga

February 9, 2017

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Photo Credit: ©Buuveibaatar Bayabaatar

Saiga, an ancient, critically-endangered species of antelope, are facing a catastrophic plague. These animals have been dying over the last two months in alarming numbers in the Great Lakes Depression of western Mongolia. WCS scientists working at the site with Mongolian and international partners believe that almost 4,000 saiga have died since December 2016— more than 25% of the total estimated population.

The culprit: an outbreak of a livestock virus known as Peste des Petits Ruminants (PPR).

"The situation is tragic and widespread," said Dr. Amanda Fine, a veterinarian and Associate Director of the WCS Wildlife Health Program in Asia. "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 rapid response team, including WCS biologist Dr. Buuveibaatar Bayarbaatar and WCS Mongolia Country Program Director Enkhtuvshin Shillegdamba, is collecting samples from the dead saiga, conducting necropsies (animal autopsies) on fresh carcasses, and evaluating the age and sex of the affected animals. Working with professional partners and international experts, the team will determine how best to help this species recover from such a devastating event.

The scale of the ongoing crisis is discussed in a recent article in The New York Times.

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