“Ruminant Plague” Threatens Populations of Wildlife and Livestock

A female saiga. Photo WCS

March 17, 2020 – A disease already known for causing massive die-offs of wildlife in Asia is spreading.

Publishing their findings in the journal Frontiers in Veterinary Science, a team of scientists from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and more than 20 other organizations say that the spillover of the Peste des Petits Ruminants virus (PPRV) from sheep and goats to wildlife has global implications for biodiversity. PPRV in wildlife also impacts the United Nations’ FAO/OIE Global Strategy for the Control and Eradication of PPR, which aims to eradicate the disease globally by 2030.

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Initially discovered in Cote d’Ivoire in West Africa in 1942, Peste des Petits Ruminants (French for small ruminant plague) is now recognized as a major global burden on the health and production of sheep and goats along with the human communities who depend on them for their livelihoods. This severe disease is typically observed as respiratory and digestive symptoms frequently followed by death. Until recently PPR has been considered a disease of domestic small ruminants, but there have been several recent outbreaks in wildlife, including the 2016-2017 outbreak in the Mongolia saiga antelope, which reduced the population of this critically endangered species by 80 percent.

The findings prompted the first international meeting: “Controlling PPR at the livestock-wildlife interface,” held at FAO headquarters in Rome last March in collaboration with the FAO/OIE PPR Global Eradication Programme Secretariat. A large group representing civil society organisations, national and international institutions discussed recent advances in our understanding of PPRV in wildlife, identified knowledge gaps and research priorities, and formulated recommendations.

Notably, the group of experts stressed the need to consider both the PPRV global eradication and wildlife protection objectives in an interdisciplinary and integrative fashion. They highlight that PPRV eradication and wildlife conservation are: “two requisites of healthy socio-ecological systems” and need not be viewed as competing priorities. Among the outcomes of this meeting was the creation of a specialized group on wildlife as part of the PPR Global Research and Expertise Network. It is expected that this group will continue to provide recommendations to better integrate considerations for wildlife in the current PPR global eradication program.

Said lead author Dr. Amada Fine Associate Director of WCS’s Health Program – Asia:

“There is growing evidence that wildlife species from our ‘mountain monarchs’ like the Siberian Ibex and Mountain Sheep to the wild ruminants of the great plains of Asia, like the Saiga antelope and Goitered gazelle, can be infected with PPRV. This has important consequences for the potential maintenance of PPRV in communities of susceptible hosts, and the threat that PPRV may pose to the conservation of wildlife populations and resilience of ecosystems.”

To address the consequences on rural livelihoods, food security, and national economies, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) endorsed the Global Strategy for the Control and Eradication of PPR (PPR GCES), and launched the PPR Global Eradication Programme (PPR GEP) to eradicate PPRV by 2030. However, in recent years, two worrying trends have been observed: a geographical expansion into new countries, and the involvement of wildlife hosts. In addition, the PPRV Global Eradication Programme was until now largely based on the premise that wildlife hosts played a negligible role in the circulation of the virus. Although wildlife infections primarily seem to originate from livestock, with limited movement in the opposite direction, legitimate questions are being asked about the ability of wildlife hosts to maintain the virus in their populations.

As said by the FAO and OIE Coordinators in the PPR Secretariat, Dr. Felix Njeumi and Jean-Jacques Soula: “PPR global Eradication by 2030 will contribute for the achievement of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), in particular SDG1 – No Poverty in all its forms everywhere; SDG2 – Zero Hunger; SDG 3–Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages; SDG5 – Gender Equality; SDG8 – Economic Growth and Decent Work, SDG 12– Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns; and SDG 17– global partnership for sustainable development. With the impact of PPR now documented in wildlife populations, PPR eradication by 2030 would also contribute to SDG15 Life on Land.” 

Countries like Mongolia are working to incorporate wildlife disease surveillance and monitoring into their National Strategies for PPR Control and Eradication. Tumendemberal Dorjnyam, Chief Veterinary Officer of Mongolia’s General Agency for Veterinary Services said: “Mongolia experienced first hand the devastating impact PPR can have on wildlife species with the loss of our Saiga antelope. We do not want to see that kind of impact again. We are working hard and collaborating with the environment sector to identify the resources and capacity required to control PPR in both wildlife and livestock populations. Eradication of PPR will benefit our livestock sector, strengthen the resilience of our livestock herders and rural communities, and safeguard our globally important biodiversity.”

Said Fine: “Recent reports and research at the wildlife-livestock interface make a strong case that wildlife hosts can no longer be ignored in the epidemiology of PPRV. Evidence of transmission between wildlife and livestock may delay PPRV eradication goals. PPRV is also a clear conservation threat to diverse, ecologically important, and often threatened wild species.

The authors say that strikingly, scientific evidence to formally assess these impacts is lacking across all ecosystems where domestic and wild susceptible hosts coexist. This knowledge gap correlates with a policy gap, as wildlife has until now largely been absent from the PPR GEP framework and National Strategic Plans.

The authors add that both gaps need to be addressed in order to meet global PPRV eradication goals while protecting global biodiversity. They acknowledge the challenge of resource allocation, but affirm that PPRV eradication and wildlife conservation objectives must be integrated and aligned. This will not only require a better understanding of these systems, but also the long-term commitment, dialogue, and collaboration of diverse stakeholders toward these goals.

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