Cattle grazing, movement of humans help spread disease

Wild animal populations of Kerala are at risk of contracting foot-and-mouth disease (FMD), which may prove fatal. The outbreak is most likely to affect ungulates, wildlife experts say.

Two instances of gaur deaths owing to acute FMD infection were reported from the Kottayam region last week, and animal disease experts fear the disease has spread to wild populations.

V. Gopinath, Chief Wildlife Warden, Kerala, said there existed a real threat to the wild animal population of the State. Cattle grazing and movement of human beings were contributing to the spread of the air-borne disease, and the wild animal population of the State was under severe threat, he said. Management of the disease would not be possible in the wild. The epidemic had hit the cattle population in the State in an unprecedented manner. It could also impact the wild animal population on an unparalleled scale, Mr. Gopinathan said.

Grave concern

It is estimated that over 10,000 head of cattle graze through the forest areas of Wayanad alone. While there are around 6,000 head of cattle in the periphery regions of Wayanad, the cattle population in settlements inside the forest area is estimated to be around 4,000.

Mr. Gopinathan said the presence of cattle in forest areas and its fringes was a matter of grave concern. Imposing restriction on grazing would not be possible, he said. P.O. Nameer, Head of the Wildlife Division of the Kerala Agricultural University, said two-hoofed herbivorous mammals, namely wild boar, mouse deer, spotted deer, Sambar, barking deer, gaur, and Nilgiri Tahr were susceptible to the epidemic.

Wild elephant populations were also vulnerable to the disease. Two cases of captive elephants contracting the disease from cattle were reported from Thrissur and Kottayam. Till now, no instances of carnivores falling prey to the disease had been reported, Dr. Nameer said.

M.R. Saseendranath, Director of Academics and Research, Kerala Veterinary and Animal Sciences University, said there existed the possibility of the infection spreading from cattle to wild animals. Bio-safety measures such as vaccination of cattle population in human habitations bordering the forest areas and restriction of movement of cattle and human beings were the only options available for containing the spread of the disease. Death occurred in animals owing to secondary infection. The mortality rate in wild animals would be less compared to that in cattle, Dr. Saseendranath said.

Wildlife experts said the disposal of carcass would be another major challenge awaiting wildlife managers following the disease outbreak. The absence of scavenger species such as vultures and hyenas in the forests of the State could aggravate the situation. Animals feeding on the carcasses could also develop the disease. Scientific disposal of the remains would have to be undertaken for containing the disease, they said.

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