Goat Plague Could Bring End for Mongolian Saiga

The saiga antelope, or Saiga tatarica, may have survived for millions of years, but its future looks uncertain. Facing another deadly disease, the critically endangered species could lose up to 80 percent of its remaining Mongolian population, Saiga tatarica mongolica. This week, the New York Times published an article by Erica Goode that shares the most recent theories and plans of action for the future.

While some scientists are calling it an underestimate, reports from the end of January documented about 2,500 deaths since December. The culprit is a virus commonly found in livestock called P.P.R. or, more simply put, the goat plague. Scientists believe that domestic livestock grazing in the saiga’s habitat probably contracted the virus in China and passed it on to them. Although the saiga has adapted to the harsh conditions of the Mongolian steppe, they are at their weakest physical state in the heart of winter. The timing of this outbreak will definitely test the future success of the population.

The good news is that this species has rebounded from disease in the past. In May 2015, a mysterious disease wiped out over 200,000 Russian saiga, or Saiga tatarica tatarica, in Kazakhstan. However, surveys during April 2016 showed growing numbers. Scientists attributed this to dedicated conservation efforts and the saiga’s resilience as a species.

The IUCN has listed the species as critically endangered since 2002. Their lives are continually at risk from poaching because Asian medicine uses their horns and meat. As disease wiped out population numbers in 2015, conservationists feared that black market value would increase and attract more poachers. Thanks to dedicated conservation efforts, the illegal wildlife trade has not shown the expected increased activity. Scientists remain hopeful for population recovery.

In the 1920s, the Russian subspecies was near extinction with fewer than 1,000 wild saiga remaining, but the population recovered by the end of the century. At one time, the saiga population was in the millions, and the animal was legally hunted. There are around 80 entries for Russian saiga in the record books. However, obstacles such as poaching, habitat loss and disease have now put the saiga on the critically endangered list.

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