Distemper outbreak threatens Serengeti wildlife
September 11, 1996
Web posted at: 4:15 p.m. EDT
From Correspondent Gary Strieker
SERENGETI NATIONAL PARK, Tanzania (CNN) -- The plains of
Serengeti National Park hold the world's richest
concentration of wildlife and the largest population of
African lions. But the animal at the top of the food chain
is now itself the victim of a deadly killer -- canine
Survivors of a distemper epidemic that swept through the
Serengeti two years ago show muscular twitches caused by the
neurological damage. The epidemic killed an estimated 1,000
lions -- a third of the population.
Two years later, there are cubs in nearly every pride on the
"At the time the distemper hit, the population was at an
all-time high," said Peyton West of the Serengeti Lion
Project. "And since then we've seen a great recovery."
In the past, epidemics of distemper in the Serengeti infected
other carnivores, like hyenas and wild hunting dogs. This was
the first time the virus had struck lions. Scientists can't
explain why, but they believe they know the source of the
An estimated 30,000 dogs -- suspected carriers of the virus
-- live in the villages close to the boundaries of the
national park. Dogs can easily spread the highly contagious
distemper virus to wild animals like hyenas and jackals,
then spread it to lions at shared kills.
To protect the lions and other wildlife in the Serengeti, the
World Society for the Protection of Animals begins a
three-year campaign this month to vaccinate thousands of the
"It's so much easier to vaccinate dogs than to vaccinate all
the potential wildlife species that could be affected," said
WSPA/Project Life Lion representative Dr. Sarah Cleaveland.
The dogs are vaccinated against distemper and rabies, also a
major problem in the area. The project is enthusiastically
supported by village leaders, who tell the people to bring
their dogs in to district veterinarians for the vaccines.
The aim of the project is to vaccinate at least 70 percent of
the dogs within 20 kilometers of the park's boundary. Experts
say that will be enough to stop the epidemic here, at the
source -- and, hopefully, before it strikes again inside the
"Should the disease become rampant throughout the Serengeti
National Park, then who knows what the actual outcome will be
next time," said Michael Pugh of the WSPA/Project Life Lion.
Conservationists say the project shows how
rapidly growing human settlements can endanger wildlife, even
in protected areas. But a healthy dog population on the
boundaries of the park could be enough to eliminate at least
one deadly threat to the Serengeti's animal population.
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