Mongolia's iconic antelopes are facing extinction after more than 2,000 had died from a disease that originated from livestock.
Thousands more of the critically endangered are feared to die as the disease will spread during winter when free-ranging saiga herds migrate and mix. It might result to an upsurge of deaths in the spring.
Scientists from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) said that 2,500 Saiga died in Western Mongolia from a disease caused by a virus known as Peste des Petits Ruminants (PPR).
PPR is a deadly virus which kills 90 percent of infected animals. It is also called a goat plague because it affects sheep and goats with symptoms of infections include diarrhoea, fever, pneumonia, and mouth sores.
The disease was first reported in 1942 in Côte d'Ivoire. It is a livestock disease afflicting sheep and goats in Africa, Middle East, and Asia.
In Mongolia's Khovd province, 900 more saigas have disappeared — approximately 10 percent of Mongolia's endangered antelopes. Saiga antelopes (Saiga tatarica) populated the grasslands of Europe and Asia. Their numbers have dwindled from 1.25 million to 50,000 for the last 40 years.
The first outbreak of PPR in Mongolia was in September 2016.
Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said the virus spread from China affecting the free-ranging saiga population at shared grazing grounds.
Experts do not rule out other possible causes as they also eye Pasteurella multocida bacteria. The equally deadly bacteria had wiped out more than 200,000 of Kazakhtstan's saiga antelope two years ago.
Scientists Warn Of Impact On The Grassland Ecosystem
The PPR outbreak does not only threaten to wipe out the endangered antelopes but threatens the whole grassland ecosystem as well.
Scientists from WCS said the outbreak is the first to have occurred among antelopes and described its spread as "alarming".
"The first case of PPR was confirmed in the Saiga on only 2nd January this year," WCS scientist Dr. Enkhtuvshin Shiilegdamba told BBC News.
She warned that the PPR outbreak in saiga has raised concern over its impact on the grassland ecosystem in general.
Dr. Shiilegdamba noted that "many other species share this same range" with saiga especially during winter.
Scientists feared it will affect the food chain once the virus spreads toward the eastern part of Mongolia where an estimated 1.5 million Mongolian gazelles migrate every year.
The disappearance of the wildlife in the area will result to a lack of prey for the endemic snow leopard, which will drive them to prey on domesticated livestock. These carnivores will also have greater risk of being shot by farmers.
Saving The Mongolian Saiga From Extinction
To save the saiga population from extinction, it is a must to immunize goats, sheep, and other domestic livestock in the area.
Dr. Amanda Fine of WCS wildlife health program said there is "a need to ensure the disease does not spread to unaffected populations" in order to save the critically endangered Saiga antelope.
FAO and the World Organization for Animal Health launched last year a program for the eradication of the disease. Aimed to eradicate PPR worldwide, the program's measures include vaccination, movement control, and quarantine.