Death of six elephants in 15 days due to bacterial disease has shocked forest officials and experts as they fear it may become an epidemic affecting about 5,630 elephants residing in a 9,751-sq km area.
Three elephants in Byilore range of Biligiri Ranga wildlife sanctuary and three in Satyamanagala range in Tamil Nadu succumbed to the disease haemorrhagic septicaemia (HS) or Pasturellosis.
Principal chief conservator of forests (wildlife) BK Singh said the postmortem report confirmed the disease.
After contracting the disease, the pachyderm gets high fever and vital organs fail and the animal dies within three to 36 hours. The carcasses of the elephants were found rotting inside the forest.
The disease spreads through cattle. To prevent its spread, health authorities have intensified a vaccination drive for cattle in and around the forest areas.
“Though there have been such sporadic deaths in the past, it has not occurred in the recent past. I will visit the place again and examine the situation,” said Singh.
But experts say this is not enough. There is an urgent need to stop cattle from entering forest areas by strengthening patrolling as other animals such as deer, lion and bison also face HS threat.
Noted elephant expert and director of Centre for Ecological Sciences, IISc, Prof R Sukumar said this bacterial disease spreads through direct contact, contaminated feed and water. Though it spreads mostly through water bodies, inhalation (air-borne) is another cause.
Further, since elephants stay in herds, HS will spread if one of them is infected. Young ones are likely to be infected first. Also if water is contaminated and herds drink from the same waterhole, they could all be infected. Vigil should be maintained in all forest areas as elephants are migratory in nature.
In case of captive elephants, they are camping in K Gudi. Cattle stray into the eastern side (where Byilore is).
It is impossible to collect and test samples of water from all water holes and tissue samples of all elephants. Hence forest officials should ensure that tissue samples of any ailing or deceased animal they come across should be immediately tested so that the spread of disease is curtailed, Sukumar said.
A recent research found that though HS mainly affects cattle, elephants, gaurs and wild dogs also get infected. The organism which causes the disease is Pasterella of the species ‘multocida’. This disease is usually endemic in nature.
Sukumar said utmost care is needed to tackle the disease. Elephants need to develop immunity against HS. But since there is a large elephant population in Karnataka forests, weaker ones may die if one among the herd is infected with HS.
Nearly a century ago, an outbreak of anthrax had claimed many elephants in the north-east region.