The ethnically Kazakh couple died on May 1 after ingesting raw marmot kidney — traditionally believed to have health benefits, according to Ulaanbaatar’s World Health Organization spokesperson Ariuntuya Ochirpurev.
Dr. N. Tsogbadrakh, director of Mongolia’s National Center for Zoonotic Dermatology and Medicine, said that the husband hunted and harvested the large rodent for his and his wife’s use.
Unfortunately, marmots are known carriers of Yersinia pestis, the bacterium that culled Europe as the “Black Death” in the middle ages. Once contracted by humans, it is extremely contagious and can be spread by coughing.
After their deaths, a six-day quarantine locked down the area, preventing nine tourists from Germany, Russia, and Switzerland from leaving. They, as well as 24-year-old American Peace Corps volunteer Sebastian Pique, were invited to the governor’s office on Friday to have the situation explained.
“After the quarantine [was announced], not many people — even locals — were in the streets for fear of catching the disease,” Pique said. Fortunately, as no other cases have been reported, the quarantine is expected to lift on Monday.
According to the U.S. National Center for Zoonotic Disease, one person in Mongolia dies from the plague each year — mostly from observing this cultural tradition.