Expert panel formed to contain spread of diseases among wild elephants (India)


Dhinesh Kallungal, The New Indian Express

Date Published

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KOCHI: The wild elephant population has been registering a marked increase in the country over the last few years. However, the outbreak of herpes and anthrax among Asian elephants has raised serious questions on their survival in the long run. 

Stung by the increase in the herpes virus deaths in the state, where the virus claimed the lives of as many as 23 elephants in recent times, the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change has constituted an expert committee to evaluate the records of wild elephant deaths during the last five years and identify the cases of anthrax and herpes.  

The committee which will have a term of three months, is expected to suggest precautionary measures to be taken to minimize the spread of the diseases among animals and humans, including ways for the safe disposal of elephant carcass. 

The committee will suggest the methodology and procedure for conducting the post-mortem of elephant carcasses, apart from proposing suggestions for the diagnosis of the diseases through modern laboratory techniques and guidelines for post-mortem of elephants. 

Dr Jacob Cheeran, retired professor and head, Veterinary College and College of Forestry, who is a member of the committee, said both diseases are contagious and anthrax is billed as the most deadly one as the diseases can easily spread to other animals and human beings if the disease is not identified and measures are not taken to dispose of the carcass properly. 

In fact there has been a lot of limitations in conducting the post-mortem of wild elephants as soon as the death occurs. However, a lot has been improved of late, steps have to be taken to raise the bar on the existing standard procedures being adopted by the forest vets and officers in the light of the outbreak of virus diseases, said Dr Cheeran. 

“We have set up a modern lab in the state to diagnose and identify the strain of virus ever since the first death due to the infection of Elephant Endotheliotropic Herpes Virus (EEHV), a virus evolved in Asiatic elephants, was reported from Wayanad in 2007. But the sad part is that the spread of the virus cannot be checked as vaccination or medication against the virus in wild elephants is almost impossible,” said Dr Arun Zacharaiah, assistant forest vet officer, Kerala, who is also a member of the new committee. 

A few incidents of anthrax infection in elephants were confirmed by officers in the forests of Kerala following the examination of the blood smears of the affected elephants. In fact the infected animals can spread the disease among other wild and domestic animals nearby the forest fringe areas if preventive steps are not taken in time. So, early detection and adoption of standard measures to prevent the spread of diseases are vital to save the Asian elephants from their early extinction, said wildlife experts. 

Mammoth problem

The herpes virus will infect blood vessels, causing hemorrhaging in the elephants and the animals would die within a few days owing to the infection. 

As many as 23 elephants have died in the forests of Kerala owing to herpes virus infection so far. An expert committee headed by the Additional Director General (PT) MoEF&CC as chairman will look into the issue and suggest ways to deal with the case of anthrax and herpes in elephants in three months.

The committee will suggest precautions to be taken for prevention of the spread of the diseases among animals and humans. 

The committee will evaluate the records of wild elephant deaths during the last five years to identify the cases of anthrax and herpes. 

The 2017 elephant census put the total number of jumbos in the forests of the country at 27,312 from 23 states, with the largest concentration in south followed by the north-east.