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Anthrax kills three cheetahs in the Namib Desert

Anthrax is a zoonotic disease that affects both humans and wildlife, and is endemic to parts of Africa. Experts are reporting on a rare case of anthrax in which three wild cheetahs in the Namib Desert died within 24 hours after feeding on a zebra that was positive for the disease. 

Since 2015, the Leibniz-IZW Cheetah Research Project (CRP) and the Namibian Ministry of Environment, Forestry and Tourism (MEFT) have been conducting surveys to gain insight into cheetah populations and conservation status in Namibia. As part of this important and ongoing research, a group of three male cheetahs was captured and collared with GPS trackers. Flights over the cheetah habitat regularly downloaded data from the collars while passing overhead. During one such flight, the body of a tagged cheetah was discovered. 

“The GPS data of the collared cheetah revealed that they died within a time window of six hours a few days before we found them,” said CRP scientist Ruben Portas.

“Evaluating their most recent movements, we identified a cluster of GPS locations approximately two kilometers away from the location where they were found dead.”

When visiting the cluster where the cheetahs had spent 20 hours the day before their death, the research team found the remains of a dead zebra infected with anthrax. 

The data suggests that the cheetahs fed on the zebra and were subsequently infected with anthrax themselves. Carnivores are usually less susceptible to the disease but can sometimes succumb to it.

“When a high load of bacteria is ingested, for example with meat from a contaminated carcass, their potent constitutive innate immunity might be overloaded,” explained CRP project head Bettina Wachter.

“Cheetahs scavenge only rarely, which reduces their exposure to anthrax infected prey. As a result, they do not produce high antibody titres, which would be another line of defence. Thus, cheetahs die quickly when infected, as studies in Etosha National Park in northern Namibia have shown.”

This case may be important for the assessment of the status of cheetahs, especially in the Namib desert, where the disease hadn’t been discovered before. 

The study is published in the journal Frontiers in Veterinary Science.

By Zach Fitzner, Staff Writer

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