Saiga antelopes are a critically endangered species found throughout Central Asia, including Kasakhstan, Uzbekistan and Russia with a small remnant subspecies in western Mongolia.

Over the last half century, mass mortality events have occurred of many tens to hundreds of thousands of animals recorded during the 3-week calving period in spring.  As part of long-term study into this species, researchers at the RVC have investigated the cause of the mortalities collaboratively with the Kazakh and international saiga interest communities as well as generally looking into the health of the species.  

The RVC team has significant experience and expertise working on infectious diseases globally and working with key stakeholders to develop new policies for their management and control. One area of expertise is emerging diseases in conservation species, working with partners and providing leadership in RVC teaching and post graduate programmes in One Health, Wildlife Health and Biology.

The research has highlighted extraordinary mortality events unprecedented in large mammals and provided understanding of the probable drivers of this phenomenon.

Led by Professor Richard Kock over several decades, the team has collaborated in long term studies to understand diseases which impact wildlife as well as understanding their role as indicators of wider human induced environmental and population changes and diseases closely linked to the expansion of domestic animal populations globally. Peste des Petits Ruminants (PPR) is a viral respiratory disease, that evolved from rinderpest virus (now eradicated), maintained by domestic goats and sheep, and which has undergone pandemic spread over the last two decades across Africa and Asia. It also impacts many threatened and vulnerable hooved wildlife species. Our team of researchers has investigated the first outbreak in free ranging antelope (Saiga) in Mongolia recently where nearly 85% of the population, along with other wildlife species died in the face of a livestock epidemic. The team has also contributed the major proportion of the science to further understanding that PPR is a disease maintained by livestock, and the role of wildlife in Africa is non-significant to livestock epidemics whilst only a minor epidemiological role exists amongst some wild ruminants in the disease emergence in Asia.

Since measles was an emergent human disease, from spill over of rinderpest virus and its adaptation from cattle to humans occurred probably in the early part of the first millennium (AD), the continued presence of morbillivirus like PPR in domestic animals remains a concern for future human emergent diseases. PPR also has devastating socio-economic impacts on rural livelihoods, and often leads to the deaths of infected animals and is of great biodiversity concern as many endangered species are hosts and suffer high mortality. Consequently, there is a global combined effort to eradicate PPR by 2030 to follow on from the success with rinderpest and attempt to put these serious pathogens back in the box after nearly 10,000 years of coevolution with domestic animals. The RVC’s research has been critical in understanding PPR emergence and the relationship of the infection with wildlife populations especially at the interface with livestock.  RVCs research has influenced global policies from organisations including the FAO and will continue to contribute to the global aim of eradicating PPR by 2030.

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