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Distemper outbreak threatens Serengeti wildlife

lion 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 distemper virus.

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 plains.

"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 virus.

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, which 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 dogs.

"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 Serengeti.

"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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