Ethnic Mongolian herders in China's northern region of Inner Mongolia have accused local officials of injecting more than 2,000 head of livestock with an overdose of anthrax vaccine, causing hundreds of animal deaths from the disease and an unknown number of anthrax cases in local people.
Herding communities in Bayanhangai Som in Urad Middle Banner (county) say the authorities began injecting sheep, cattle, and horses with an overdose of anthrax vaccine on Oct. 23 after claiming to identify symptoms of the highly infectious disease in horses.
Local people said the horses had been poisoned by eating wild onions, but that officials refused to listen, injecting at least 2,448 head of sheep, cattle, and horses.
Hundreds of animals have since died, and an unknown number of people have been infected, they told RFA.
"Several hundred people have caught this disease," one local herder told RFA. "It's not too bad if it's caught early, but if it's caught too late, it can be fatal."
"They can't eradicate it ... and a lot of sheep have died after receiving these vaccinations," said the man, who asked to remain anonymous. "But the herders don't dare come out and talk about this."
He said he had been unable to transmit photos of the anthrax vaccination station by message to RFA on Tuesday. "I couldn't get it to send," he said.
A second local resident said the local authorities appeared keen to cover up the extent of the problem.
"There were so many people who got this disease, and it was only then that they started to say it was the vaccine," a local herder whose son became infected with anthrax told RFA.
"It started to get serious, although it was never made public, and it got out of control," he said, adding that his son was infected through a cut while sheep-shearing back in May.
He said the authorities had initially offered medical treatment to those infected free of charge. "Then, when we went to the doctor, they wanted money from us," he said.
"He had aches all over his body of all kinds, in every joint, and he couldn't walk," the man said. "He is only 30 years old. This is a disease that is very serious if people catch it from sheep."
News of the anthrax infections began to surface after local herdswoman Odongerel sent out a tweet calling on journalists to report the story, amid ongoing attempts from local officials to impose an information blackout.
She later told the New York-based Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center (SMHRIC) that the authorities' claim that an anthrax epidemic had affected local herds was wrong.
"The deputy director of the Urad Middle Banner bureau of animal husbandry came to our community and ordered ... an overdose of anthrax vaccine to be injected [into our] livestock immediately upon seeing a couple of horses that had minor food poisoning with wild onion," SMHRIC quoted the woman as saying in a statement on its website.
Odongerel was detained by local police on Nov. 3 on suspicion of "spreading rumors and carrying infected animal blood," it said.
"They confiscated my cell phone, and asked me how many pictures, video clips, and other pieces of relevant information I have transmitted over the Internet about this incident," Odongerel told SMHRIC. "They accused me of having violated certain safety policies by carrying infected animal blood samples."
She said that local authorities "hate" the herders, and had likely infected their livestock deliberately amid ongoing tensions over land in the region between traditional herding communities, government officials, and Chinese mining and forestry companies.
Repeated calls to the Urad Middle Banner center for disease control and prevention rang unanswered during office hours on Tuesday.
An official who answered the phone at the Urad Middle Banner general government office denied the herders' account.
"Not likely," the official said. "Since when do we have vaccination programs in winter? That's a lie."
"The time for vaccination is springtime."
An official who answered the phone at the Urad Middle Banner bureau of agriculture and animal husbandry confirmed the "outbreak" but not the reported cause.
"No, that didn't happen," the official said. "How would they die from a vaccination? They probably died of something else ... [or] they probably already had it."
He said the anthrax had come from the northwestern region of Xinjiang. "When it got serious, they dug a pit and buried them, so the blood didn't escape."
He said cross-species infection from infected livestock to humans is entirely possible.
"Yes, it can [infect humans]," the official said. "You can get infected if you don't wear gloves."
A herder from Bayanhangai Som, or village, said the death rate appeared to be slowing among livestock on Tuesday.
"I haven't discovered any more today," the herder said, adding, "[I lost] 200-300 head of sheep."
Disputes over land
Herders blame the ongoing exploitation of natural resources by Chinese companies for the spread of grasslands-related protests in the region, as local governments sell off land to investors, often in the mining or forestry sectors, and sometimes in the face of existing "responsibility contracts" held by herding communities for the land.
SMHRIC estimates that at least 160,000 ethnic Mongolians have been forcibly evicted from traditional grazing lands in recent decades, while local activists also blame Chinese companies for damaging the fragile ecosystem in the region, leading local authorities to impose grazing bans to prevent further desertification.
In China, all land is ultimately owned by the state, so herders have little redress when it comes to safeguarding their own grazing rights, they say.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.