The saiga project is a long-term contribution from RVC to research into understanding of the causes of mortality of the saiga antelope. This species ranges in the Steppes of Asia, in a few localities but is classified as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) red listing process due to a collapse of the population at the end of the 20th century from hunting and subsequent mass mortality events due to haemorrhagic septicaemia (HS) and peste des petits ruminants (PPR). 

Altai Mountains in western Mongolia -32 Celsius

Challenge       

The saiga antelope is a Pleistocene survivor of Central Asia and the keystone herbivore remaining on the vast open steppes. In recent decades, it appears the species has become vulnerable to disease related mass mortality, due to an opportunistic bacteria Pasteurella multocida in Kazakhstan. This disease in 2015 killed 88% of the main population of around a quarter of a million animals over three weeks. The long-term study by RVC and partners in Kazakhstan started in 2011 after a smaller die off in the Urals enabled this disease to be studied intensively.

The mass mortalities were found to be HS and closely associate with anomalous weather patterns and environmental conditions which may relate to climate change effects. PPR virus meanwhile has spread across Asia as a pandemic, reaching Kazakhstan in 2014 but due to warnings from the RVC Kazakh researchers on the possible vulnerability, the saiga did not suffer. Unfortunately, in Mongolia in 2016, the virus entered the country probably amongst livestock and despite mass vaccination spilled into wildlife species. This outbreak devastated the Mongolia subspecies of saiga causing 85% mortality of the only extant population in the plains east of the Altai mountains.

RVC was part of the joint FAO CMC crisis management team and has established another long-term relationship to study this disease under the framework of the PPR eradication and research programmes coordinated by the FAO/OIE.     

Objectives of the Saiga project     

1. Support Central Asia veterinary and wildlife authorities and NGOs in a HS and PPR disease research partnership, with other UK and European universities and institutions, to address objectives of the CMS Range State management of migratory species.
2. Provide professional wildlife health advice on a range of wildlife diseases emerging in the region including Lumpy Skin Disease affecting saiga.   

Field team on saiga research – after a necropsy in Kazakhstan steppe (FAO, Biosafety Institute Kazakhstan, Frankfurt Zoological Society and RVC staff)

      

Solution      

Background mortality studies saiga     

Annually a mission to monitor saiga calving events in Central Asia include RVC staff and students (other than COVID years) and they undertake routine clinical diagnosis and necropsy of dead and dying saiga during the spring. This includes supporting biological monitoring programmes by Frankfurt Zoological Society (FZS) and the Association Conservation of Biodiversity in Kazakhstan (ACBK).    

Pathogenesis HS   

An understanding of the pathogenesis of HS in saiga will help to elucidate the underlying causation of these remarkable mass mortality events and provide confirmation of risk factors and mechanism of bacterial invasion and sepsis. These likely opportunistic bacterial invasion events occur on a mass scale and synchronously across the population.

The precise mechanism for the change in bacterial activity associated with anomalous changes in temperature and humidity at the time of calving each year needs research. Latent infection has been confirmed but, as yet, the scale of latency is not determined and RVC pathology have set up an immunohistochemical method for confirming the presence of P multocida in tonsillar tissues collected annually from saiga that have died from natural causes like dystocia, which is relatively common in this species, that produces twins and triplets regularly.

If a high prevalence of latent bacteria is confirmed, from regular annual sampling of tissues, then the next stage will be to study the mechanism(s) for triggering bacterial activity and invasion of mucosal cells of the upper respiratory tract and epithelial cells of the gastrointestinal tract. The respiratory and intestinal invasion pathway evidence based on earlier histology of tissues in the HS caused mass mortality event of 2015.     

Ongoing risk of PPR in wildlife in Central Asia         

The RVC is part of the research team focusing on PPR in Mongolia and working closely with the PPR GREN and FAO secretariat, contributes to emergency outbreak response and evaluation of risks and vulnerabilities of Central Asia antelope to this viral pathogen through direct and supporting research with other partners such as Pirbright Institute in the UK.

The study locations   

The field research on HS and background mortality undertaken in the Ural and Tengiz/Altyn Dala/Ural basin region of Kazakhstan. The study areas are ~ 500,000-kilometre square habitat used during calving of the two sub-populations. The area is characterised by steppe grassland with extreme summer and winter temperatures.

The PPR research is undertaken in region of Khovd Mongolia east of the Altai on desert plains.

Impact      

The study findings to date provided unique information on the cause of mass mortality of saiga and the impact of PPR on saiga antelope.
The findings of Saiga research have been published in several papers. In addition, the team have presented at various UK and international meetings.
New findings have attracted global interest by media and science outlets as well as popular press and documentaries. More information on the impact of our study on "Our Impact".

Partners      

We thank the UNEP CMS secretariat, various funders and supporters, including: UKRI NERC, FZS, NCEAS California, Morris Animal Foundation, FAO CMC, Fauna and Flora International, Saiga Conservation Alliance, Wildlife Conservation Society. Research partners include: FAO PPR GEP and GREN; Pirbright Institute UK; FLI Berlin; Queens’ University, Belfast; Swedish Agricultural University, Sweden; University of Calgary, Canada; and Kazakh Veterinary Authorities, Ministry of Environment Forestry and Hunting, Biosafety Institute Gvardeskiy and ACBK/FZS/FFI conservation partnership.   

Publications     

Title Publication Year
Molecular epidemiology of peste des petits ruminants virus emergence in critically endangered Mongolian saiga antelope and other wild ungulates  Virus Evolution 2021
Outbreak of Peste des Petits Ruminants in Critically Endangered Mongolian Saiga and Other Wild Ungulates Emerging Infectious Diseases  Emerging Infectious Diseases 2020
Opportunistic bacteria and mass mortality in ungulates: lessons from an extreme event Ecosphere 2019
Mass die-off of saiga antelopes, Kazakhstan, 2015  Emerging Infectious Diseases 2019
Biological characterization of Pasteurella multocida present in the Saiga population BMC Microbiology BMC Microbiology 2019
Pathological findings in the mass mortality event of saiga antelope, May 2015. NERC Environmental Information Data Centre NERC EIDC Database 2018
Saigas on the brink: Multidisciplinary analysis of the factors influencing mass mortality events Science Advances Science Advances 2018
Timely Response to Untimely Death Natural History 2018
Seroprevalence of infectious diseases in saiga antelope (Saiga tatarica tatarica ) in Kazakhstan 2012 – 2014. Preventive Veterinary Medicine, 127, 100–104. Preventive Veterinary Medicine 2016
Remote and in situ analyses of the potential causes of saiga antelope die-offs in Western Kazakhstan Saiga news, (16) 16-18 2013
A retrospective assessment of saiga antelope Saiga tatarica die-off in Western Kazakhstan 2010-2011. Saiga News Issue 14, Winter 2011/2012 1-4 Number 1, 2012

 

In the Media     

Media (with link if available) Type
Lovenature.com Article
CNN Article
Express.kz Article
Kazakh gvt Article
IISD Article
PHYS.org Article
Aljazeera_1 Article
Aljazeera_2 Article
Houston Chronicle Article
International Business Times Article
IFL Science Article
Notre planete Article
New York Times Article
Oxford Biology Alumnus Newsletter Article
Royal Veterinary College Article
Saiga Conservation Alliance_1 Article
Saiga Conservation Alliance_2 Article
Saiga Conservation Alliance_3 Article
Saiga Conservation Alliance_4 Article
Saiga Conservation Alliance_5 Article
Saiga Conservation Alliance_6 Article
Business Insider UK_1 Article
Business Insider UK_2 Article
Frankfurt Zoological Society Article
Mongabay Article
The Guardian_1 Article
The Guardian_2 Article
DW_1 Article & clip
DW_2 Clip
DW_3 Clip
DW_4 Clip
DW_5 Clip
Aljazeera_3 Clip

 

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