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Anthrax Outbreak May Have Caused Mass Die-off of Hippos in Namibia

More than 100 hippos have been found dead over the past week

(Paulmaz/Wikimedia Commons )
smithsonian.com

Over the past week, more than 100 hippos died suddenly in a Namibian national park, their bloated carcasses splayed out in a stagnant river. Veterinarians are working to determine the cause of the mass die-off, but as the Agence France-Presse reports, officials suspect an anthrax outbreak is to blame.

The deaths occurred in the Bwabwata national park in northeast Namibia. It is a unique protected area, John Muyamba writes in the Namibian publication New Era, because it is also home to some 5,500 people, who help manage the park. The first unfortunate hippos were discovered on October 2, and within seven days, some 107 had been reported dead.

Namibia's Minister of Environment and Tourism​ Pohamba Shifeta tells the AFP that the “cause of death is unknown but the signs so far show that it could be anthrax.” He added that officials will be able to implement a plan of action once they have confirmed why the hippos spontaneously died.

Anthrax infections are caused by the bacteria Bacillus anthracis, which exists in spores in plants, soils and waters, according to the CDC. Though it can be lethal to humans, anthrax commonly affects domestic and wild animals, which get infected when grazing on or drinking contaminated materials. Muyamba of New Era notes that Bacillus anthracis is frequently found in pools of stagnant water that form during Africa’s dry season. Hippos are particularly susceptible to infection because they spend much of their time in the water. 

Though the recent die-off in Bwabwata is the first the park has seen, similar events have occurred elsewhere in Africa. As Eli Meixler of Time reports, 300 hippos died from an anthrax outbreak in Uganda in 2004. At around the same time, anthrax killed a number of elephants and hippos in the Kasika Conservancy, also located in Namibia.

Because humans can become infected with anthrax by handling or consuming contaminated animals, officials are working hard to limit exposure to the hippos. “We will just sensitize the community not to try and get the meat of these dead hippos for consumption,” Apollinaris Kannyinga, deputy director of parks in Namibia’s northeast region, tells Lugeretzia Kooper of the Namibian.

Kannyinga added that although the number of hippo mortalities is high, most populations affected by anthrax do eventually recover.

About Brigit Katz

Brigit Katz is a journalist based in New York City. Her work has appeared in New York magazine, Flavorwire, and Women in the World, a property of The New York Times.

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