Mongolian Saiga PPR Virus Outbreak: WCS's response

A saiga mass mortality event is still continuing in the Great Lakes Depression of western Mongolia. According to the latest government reports it's believed that over 5,000 saigas have died since December 2016 in the Durgun steppe, Khuisiin Gobi and Sharga Gobi of Khovd and Gobi-Altai Provinces of Mongolia, bordered by the Altai Mountains and China. The most recent pre-outbreak population estimate for the Mongolian saiga, a unique subspecies, was around 10,000, so this event represents a significant loss of the population.

Enkhtuvshin Shiilegdamba, Wildlife Conservation Society,

The cause is a livestock virus known as PPR or Peste des Petits Ruminants. The disease was first detected in goats and sheep in the saiga range area in August 2016, and subsequently spilled over into the wildlife [see the articles by B. Chimeddorj & B. Buuveibaatar and R. Kock for more details].

A WCS response  team, including WCS Mongolia Program Director Dr. Enkhtuvshin Shiilegdamba, biologists Dr. Buuveibaatar Bayarbaatar, Ariunbaatar Barkhasbaatar, Dr. Batkhuyag Sandag from the Veterinary and Animal Breeding Agency and State Central Veterinary Laboratory virologist Dr. Munkhduuren Shatar, carried out field missions along with the FAO/OIE Crisis Management Center and Animal Health team. This consisted of Dr. Richard Kock from the Royal Veterinary College, UK, and Dr. Bolortuya Puversuren, a local epidemiological consultant. The team aimed to rapidly assess the situation and collect samples from dead saiga. They conducted necropsies on fresh saiga carcasses and evaluated sick saigas, confirming the PPR diagnosis and providing recommendations on data collection and immediate control measures.

The WCS team is continuing to work on the saiga PPR outbreak, and the latest major initiatives include an "International Experts Meeting on Addressing PPR Virus Outbreak in Mongolian Saiga and Livestock", providing recommendations to the Mongolian Government for further activities that are critical to controlling and eradicating this disease in livestock and wildlife in Mongolia. This meeting was supported by FAO/OIE, the US Embassy in Mongolia, USGS, USFWS and WCS and organized by the Ministry of Environment and Tourism and the Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Light Industry on May 29-31, 2017. Thereafter, Western 4 province and State Central Veterinary Laboratory (SCVL) experts were invited to a week of training on gross necropsy in the field, characterization and documentation of the gross necropsy findings, and how to do basic laboratory analysis of samples in the field. This training was funded by the Trust for Mutual Understanding (TMU), and the Bronx Zoo pathology Department pathologists Charlotte Hollinger and Ania Tomaszewicz provided the technical training.

With support recently secured from Morris Animal Foundation, Saiga Conservation Alliance and the FAO/OIE, WCS is planning to survey wild ungulate populations in Western Mongolia, including saiga antelopes, Goitered gazelle, Siberian Ibex and Argali. We will collar animals and collect samples from these individuals to detect immunity against PPR in saiga populations. This will determine where and how the disease is spreading so that interventions, such as livestock vaccination, can be targeted to stop the spread of the disease and minimize the impacts on wild ungulate populations.

The PPR virus most likely spilled over from infections in domestic sheep and goats. WCS and partners (FAO/OIE, Ministry of Environment and Tourism, Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Light Industry, WWF, Institute of General and Experimental Biology) are working to design effective control strategies for both livestock and wildlife to eradicate PPR, and prevent serious long term socio-economic and biodiversity consequences. Increased investment in saiga antelope and habitat protection will also be needed to ensure that the remaining saiga population can recover after this devastating setback. Therefore WCS continues to look for other donors and support to prevent the extinction of this critical species and support efforts towards PPR eradication in Mongolia by 2025.