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What WVI is doing to combat a growing problem
You probably associate Canine Distemper Virus, or CDV, with domestic dogs. If you’re a dog owner, you most likely vaccinate your dog against it annually. But it has a much wider impact. This very common disease affects many carnivores, large and small, and it’s recently made an appearance in critically endangered wild tiger populations.
Tigers enjoy dog meat, and the most likely source of infection is the local dog population, though it now looks as though other small wild carnivores may also play a role. Recent research in the Russian Far East found that 15% * of Amur tigers tested positive for exposure to CDV.
*J Wildlife Diseases (2012) 48(1):186-189
Now it seems that Sumatran tigers may also be affected by the same problem. The remaining tigers in Indonesia (estimated at less than 400) are already under threat from all sides. As habitat is lost and the population becomes increasingly fragmented, the risk from any outbreak of disease increases. Reports of human-tiger conflict cases suggest that tigers are behaving strangely, losing their fear of people and straying into villages. These symptoms are worryingly consistent with infection by CDV, and reflect experience of the disease in Russia.
CDV could affect tigers in different ways. Some die from the infection itself, while others suffer neurological damage which reduces their fear of humans. This can bring them into conflict with people, and make them much more vulnerable to poaching. As a result, the disease has the potential to impact significantly on remaining tiger populations, which are already under threat from habitat destruction and poaching.
Urgent research is needed to establish the extent of the problem and to investigate possible solutions and control measures. No relevant veterinary testing has yet been carried out in Sumatra, and this is where WVI comes in. Co-founder and big cat specialist, Dr. John Lewis, has wide experience in this area and his veterinary expertise means he can be a key player in developing structured disease monitoring in this and other tiger range states. If we can help local organisations and government authorities establish a successful programme in Sumatra, this could become a model for other countries.
WVI is working in partnership with local organisations in Sumatra to monitor the emergence of CDV in tigers and devise ways of controlling it, such as vaccinating the local dog populations. Our co-founder and big cat specialist, Dr. John Lewis, is one of a number of scientists looking at the potentially lethal impact of CDV and other diseases on wild tigers, not just in Indonesia but also in Russia, India and Bangladesh. There is still very little information available on how these kind of endemic diseases impact on wild tigers, and yet understanding the role they play may well prove vital in the battle against extinction.
It is possible that CDV is also emerging in the tiger population of Bangladesh. In addition to our work in Sumatra, WVI is currently funding a project in Bangladesh which will look at the presence of CDV in domestic dogs who live around the Sundarbans tiger habitat. Although this project will focus on CDV, which currently gives most cause for concern, it will also research other endemic diseases in the local dog and cat populations which could affect the tigers in future.
The study will investigate the extent to which CDV is found in dogs in and around the villages bordering on the Sundarban mangrove forest, which is home to the Bengal tiger. We hope that in due course this project will be extended to survey a range of diseases present in the domestic dog and cat populations, as well as some other local wildlife. This more comprehensive disease surveillance programme could be invaluable in protecting tiger health in the long term. Domestic animals and the villagers themselves would also benefit from generally improved health conditions, for example as a result of vaccination against rabies and distemper.
Understanding how CDV is affecting wild tigers, and finding ways to control it, is a central question for tiger conservation. In addition to our work in the field,
WVI took part in a meeting in New York in 2015 which brought together a range of tiger specialists to discuss and develop ways to vaccinate wild tigers against CDV, as a possible next step in the fight against the disease.
Saving some of the planet’s rarest creatures from extinction needs expert help, and WVI can supply that when and where it’s needed.
Steve Leonard, Veterinary Surgeon and TV Presenter
WVI is indebted to the generous individuals and organisations whose ongoing support - financial, moral and in kind - allows us to deliver our conservation objectives.