Migratory Steppe Ungulates

Asia has some of the greatest and least-known ungulate spectacles on earth – the saiga antelope, Tibetan antelope, various gazelle species such as Mongolian gazelle, goitered gazelle, and chinkara gazelle, Asiatic and Tibetan wild ass, and wild yak. Together these ungulates provide a unique and diverse assemblage of large mammals supremely adapted to living in the harsh, arid, and cold steppe and desert environments of Temperate Asia. 

The rapidly growing number of domestic livestock across the Central Asia region has led to an increase in livestock-born infectious agents spreading to these great herds of wild ungulates. The spillover of these diseases from domestic to wild-living ungulates has been widely reported during the last 25 years, with sometimes dramatically detrimental effects.

Peste des petits ruminants (PPR) virus, also known as sheep and goat plague or Ovine rinderpest, is a highly contagious animal disease affecting small ruminants. Once introduced, the virus can infect up to 90 percent of an animal herd, and the disease kills anywhere from 30 to 70 percent of infected animals. PPR was first identified in northwest Africa in 1942, and has spread into Central Asia in recent years. The threat from these diseases is very real – a recent outbreak of PPR in 2016-2017 killed 80% of Mongolia’s critically endangered saiga antelope (as well as thousands of livestock) in just a few months. Recent deaths of blue sheep and Siberian ibex in China (2009, 2015), goitered gazelle, Siberian ibex, and argali sheep in Mongolia (2017) have also been attributed to PPR. WCS veterinarians have been working with the FAO and OIE to ensure wildlife are adequately incorporated into efforts of the PPR Global Eradication Programme (GEP). Presentations from a recent virtual training workshop on 'PPR Outbreak Investigation in Wildlife' can be viewed here. 

Outbreak of Peste des Petits Ruminants among Critically Endangered Mongolian Saiga and Other Wild Ungulates, Mongolia, 2016–2017

Read a letter from our veterinarians on the conservation threat of PPR, published in Science

Other diseases also threaten these great herds of wild ungulates in Asia. Foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) is a highly contagious viral disease, and periodic outbreaks from domestic livestock on Mongolia's Eastern Steppe have killed large numbers of Mongolian gazelle. In 2015 over half the world population of saiga antelope (over 200,000) died in Kazakhstan in just a few weeks from a bacterial infection that made them susceptible to haemorrhagic septicaemia. Read commentary from our veterinarian and Country Program Director in Mongolia, Dr Enkee:

“With new protections, saiga antelope may continue to be a symbol of Central Asia”

Understanding and finding ways to manage and minimize these disease threats and outbreaks is a principle activity of the WCS Health Programs. Our staff are active across the region training local veterinary specialists to be able to respond quickly and effectively to outbreaks, and we are working with local and national agencies to better diagnose and manage livestock-wild ungulate diseases and interactions to minimize the threat to these last great migratory spectacles.


Saiga banner photo Credit: Business Wire

Saiga thumbnail photo credit: Buuveibaatar Bayabaatar,WCS

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