Hippos Mysteriously Die in Droves at a Namibian Natural Park

Screenshot of a Namibian Broadcasting Corporation (NBC) report on YouTube showing lifeless hippos in Namibia.

Namibia's Ministry of Environment announced on October 10 that about a hundred hippopotamus carcasses had been discovered in Bwabwata National Park, in the northwest of the country.

The hippo hecatomb represented a loss of more than 8% of hippos living in this Namibian national park, in a country that heavily relies on its biodiversity and ecosystem to attract tourists. From available data, tourism contributes to 16% of the gross domestic product (GDP) and 17.7% of the total number of jobs.

The news caught the attention of the world's press and made the rounds on social media. Joe Bauwens, who has worked in tourism and is specialised in fauna, mineral exploration, development, conservation, education and environmental chemistry, posted on his blog Sciency Thoughts about the leading theory on the cause of the deaths:

Authorities in the Bwabwata National Park in northeast Namibia have reported a suspected outbreak of Anthrax that has killed over a hundred Hippopotamus in the last week. Tissue samples from the animals have been sent for testing, and the cause of the disease has yet to be confirmed, but no other disease is known to be able to rapidly kill large numbers of Hippos in this way. Concerns have also been raised that the disease may have affected other animals in the park, particularly Crocodiles that are likely to have fed on any dead animals in or close to a river.

Photos and video from local news outlets showed the carcasses lying in the water, many belly up.

According to science journalist Stéphanie Schmidt at Trust My Science, the consequences could be more severe if anthrax really is the culprit, because other animals and even local people living in the area surrounding the park might have been exposed:

S’il s’avère qu’il s’agit réellement de la maladie du charbon, qui aurait provoqué la mort de tous ces hippopotames (retrouvés couchés sur le flanc et dans les eaux fluviales), alors il se pourrait qu’ils ne soient pas les seuls à être les victimes de cette maladie. Un certain nombre de buffles d’eau morts auraient également été découverts. De plus, les crocodiles qui se nourrissent d’hippopotames morts pourraient également être infectés par la bactérie Bacillus anthracis.

Les habitants locaux et les autorités namibiennes soupçonnent les épidémies de fièvre charbonneuse comme étant responsables de la mort de 300 personnes en 2004 (après qu’elles aient bu de l’eau contaminée), ainsi qu’un autre incident moins grave, survenu en 2010. « Il s’agit d’une situation que nous avons déjà vue auparavant.Cela est déjà arrivé en Zambie, et cela se produit principalement lorsque le niveau de la rivière est bas », a expliqué Colgar Sikopo, directeur des parcs et de la gestion de la faune de la Namibie.

If the cause of death for all those hippos (found belly up in the water) is really anthrax, they might not be the only victims of this illness. A number of water buffaloes have also reportedly been found dead. Moreover, the crocodiles feeding from the dead hippos might also be infected by the Bacillus anthracis bacteria.

The locals and the Namibian authorities suspect an epidemic of anthrax was behind the death of 300 people in 2004 (after they drank contaminated water), as well as another less serious incident in 2010. “This is a situation that we have seen before. It happened in Zambia before and it mainly occurs when the level of the river is so low,” explained Colgar Sikopo, the director of the parks and responsible of the fauna in Namibia.

The article added:

Hormis les épidémies de fièvre charbonneuse, les scientifiques ont également, récemment, enquêté sur une autre souche mystérieuse et hybride de l’agent pathogène, liée à la mort de chimpanzés, de gorilles et d’éléphants.

Cette souche serait responsable de près de 40% des décès d’animaux du parc national de Taï, en Côte d’Ivoire, au cours de la période d’étude des scientifiques. Cependant, il n’y a aucune preuve que cette souche particulière soit à l’origine des décès des hippopotames. […]

En plus de la faune sauvage, il y a environ 5500 personnes qui vivent dans la région du parc national de Bwabwata. Actuellement, les autorités les avertissent de se méfier de la zone touchée et surtout de ne pas consommer de la chair d’hippopotame. « Nous conseillons fortement de ne pas consommer cette viande. Nous faisons de notre mieux pour brûler chaque carcasse afin de prévenir la propagation de la maladie, mais aussi pour nous assurer qu’aucune personne n’atteigne ces animaux et n’exploite leur viande », a déclaré Sikopo New Era.

In addition to anthrax outbreak, scientists have also recently investigated another mysterious, hybrid strain of the pathogen, linked to the death of chimpanzees, gorillas and elephants.

This strain is responsible for about 40% of the death of the animals in the National Park of Taï, in Côte d’Ivoire, according to scientific studies. However, there is no such proof showing that this particular strain has caused the death of the hippos. […]

Approximately 5,500 people cohabit with the wild fauna in the region of the Bwabwata National Park. At the moment, authorities are advising them to beware of the contaminated area, and mostly not to consume hippos flesh. “We strongly advise that they must not consume this meat. What we are doing is we are trying our best to burn every carcass to prevent further spreading of the disease, but also to ensure that no person gets to these animals and starts feeding on the meat,” Sikopo told New Era.

Anthrax is caused by a bacteria, Bacillus anthracis, whose spores can lay unnoticed in nature for years or even decades, waiting to be eaten by humans, other mammals and some birds.

Charles Patrick Davis, MD, PhD, writing for MedicineNet.com says the bacteria strikes in many parts of the world, including sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, South Europe, Americas and Australia.

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