Thousands of critically endangered saiga antelope in Mongolia have died over the last two months, crashing their numbers by 27 percent.
The Mongolian saiga population was estimated at a precarious 10,000 in December 2016, before their numbers plummeted by 2,500.
The agent of destruction? A livestock virus known as peste des petits ruminants (PPR), also dubbed the goat plague. The virus is a highly contagious animal disease that typically affects goats and other small livestock, killing 30 to 70 percent of infected animals. It was first reported in Ivory Coast back in 1942. Since then it has traveled across Africa and Asia, though outbreaks in wild animals have been rare and it's never been seen in antelopes before.
The saiga, known for their humped nose, soft tawny coat, and thin legs, are beautifully odd creatures on the brink of extinction. Habitat loss, illegal hunting, and outbreaks have drastically slashed their population numbers.
Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time the saiga have been felled in large quantities. In 2010, around 12,000 saiga suddenly died in Kazakhstan. In 2012, another 1,000. Then in 2015, more than 200,000 died within two weeks due to a bacterial infection that felled half the species.
“The situation is tragic and widespread,” said Dr Amanda Fine, a veterinarian and associate director of the WCS Wildlife Health Program in Asia, in a statement. “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 by the mass die-off, and snow leopards may be hurt by the diminished prey base.
Burning Saiga Carcasses. Credit: Buuveibaatar Bayabaatar/WCS
The antelope appeared to be in poor condition before they were struck with the goat plague, as winter is a strenuous season to fight off a virus – their resistance is lower and their susceptibility to disease is higher. This year, the result is corpses strewn across the steppes of Mongolia’s Khovd province.
Scientists predict that thousands more of the Mongolian saigas will die, reaching a potential 80 percent mortality, according to The New York Times. Spring of this year will be especially risky, as that’s when they gather together to calve.
“The best way to prevent PPR is through further immunization of livestock in not only saiga range areas but other affected species range areas,” said Fine. More work will be needed to control the outbreak and local Mongolian officials are seeking international communities for support.
Vets carry saiga carcasses. Just a few decades ago, there were millions of the antelope. Credit: Buuveibaatar Bayabaatar/WCS
The species is listed as critically endangered by the IUCN’s RedList. These nomadic mammals can migrate 72 miles a day, with their signature noses filtering out dust during the dry summer months and warming cold air during the frigid winter months.
The saiga has bounced back before with conservation efforts. Let’s hope, in that regard, they repeat history.
Saiga antelope populations are in critical condition. Credit: WCS Mongolia
A male saiga grazing. VZ maze/Shutterstock