Elephant Deaths From Anthrax in Namibia

A very sad story appeared on PROMED-mail recently about a die-off of elephants around Nakabolelwa, Namibia.  While still not completely investigated, the most likely cause seems to be anthrax.  Bad news for elephant conservation. If anthrax infection turns out truly to be the cause of mortality, then it raises all sorts of problems.  Chief among these is the possibility that people will eat meat from the carcasses, leading to almost certain infection and death if anthrax is indeed the culprit.  But even if people don't eat meat from the carcasses, scavengers might and could then spread the anthrax spores around the landscape.  Bad news for anthrax control.  Anthrax spores in the ground remain infectious for a potentially very long time -- potentially decades. One can just imagine what a control nightmare having a checkerboard of cryptic anthrax hotspots across a landscape is.

Burning the elephant carcasses, which might be done for other types of animal infections, is impractical because it would take so much fuel in this xeric region with few woodlands and chronic shortages of cooking fuel. The PROMED moderator writes:

Dealing with elephant carcasses is difficult, as one would imagine. The prescribed technique is to pile the carcass with thorn brush to discourage scavengers while the carcass decomposes. The drop in pH will kill the vegetative cells quickly in the unopened carcass. Burning takes a significant volume of wood, and it is hard to get proper ventilation of the underside of the carcass.

Wayne Getz and his collaborators have a relatively new project to study the ecology of episodic anthrax transmission around Etosha Park, Namibia.  I await the results from this project eagerly since, as far as I can tell, just about everything that comes out of his lab is great, and if not great, at least interesting.

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