Namibian officials believe an anthrax outbreak may have caused the deaths of more than 100 hippos in one of the country’s national parks.
“We first noticed the deaths of 10 hippos last week Sunday, but the number increased during the week,” Bwabwata National Park director Apollinaris Kannyinga told the Namibian. “As we speak, the number of deaths is 109. We suspect an anthrax outbreak, but our veterinary team is still to confirm that.”
It was reported that hippo carcasses were scattered by a river in the park. However, officials said it’s a scene they’ve seen before.
“It happened in Zambia before and it mainly occurs when the level of the river is so low,” said Colgar Sikopo, director of parks and wildlife management at Namibia’s Ministry for Environment and Tourism.
“This is a natural cause and with the animals dying people should not panic, as it won’t negatively affect tourism in the area,” he added.
This isn’t the first time anthrax caused mass hippo deaths.
At the Queen Elizabeth National Park in Uganda in 2004, more than 300 hippos died from anthrax poisoning.
Scientists believe the death toll was particularly high because once hippos started dying, other hippos became cannibals ate the carcasses.
“The widespread mortality may be a result of the communal scavenging or ‘cannibalism’ of carcasses of anthrax-killed hippos by other hippos,” biosecurity and agriculture analyst Joseph Dudley told the New Scientist at the time.
“I knew hippos were nasty, but I didn’t know they went around eating each other,” said anthrax expert Martin Hugh-Jones, a professor emeritus at Louisiana State University.
Namibia’s environment minister Pohamba Shifeta told news agency AFP that the country’s veterinary services were working on establishing the exact cause. He warned that the exact death toll could be higher due to the possibility that crocodiles may have eaten some of the carcasses.
Anthrax is caused by Bacillus anthracis and can be deadly – but usually it does not spread easily.
It largely survives as spores that hide away in soil for years before entering an animal through a cut or wound.
A previous outbreak in Uganda in 2004 left at least 180 hippos dead, while last year more than 2,300 reindeer died after being infected with anthrax during a heatwave in Siberia.
A child also died in the Siberian outbreak. Traditionally the people most at risk have been those who handle dead animals, such as abattoir workers.
Anthrax can be treated with antibiotics but treatment needs to start soon after infection.