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An Epidemic in the Serengeti: Dog Virus Kills Lions

July/August 1996

Tourists were the first to notice that the lions were sick. In 1994, they were taking a balloon ride over East Africa's Serengeti park when they saw the felines convulsing. Their guide contacted Melody Roelke-Parker, the park's wildlife veterinarian, and the race was on.

In a matter of months, Roelke-Parker and other scientists identified the killer, but not before 1,000 lions--one-third of the Serengeti population--had already died.

The culprit: Canine Distemper Virus (CDV).

The 1994 epidemic is not likely to repeat itself for at least five years, according to pathologist Linda Munson of the University of Tennessee who analyzed tissue from the dead lions. The lions surviving the infection should have long-lived immunity.

In a recent article in the journal, Nature, Munson and her co-authors recount the epidemic and the detective work involved in tracking the killer that almost devastated the NSF-funded Serengeti Lion Project.

The lions mortality rate has returned to normal. But the danger for future generations is far from over. "There is something very different about this virus," says Munson. "It is now much more pathogenetic to big cats then we've ever seen before."

Nor will the next generations of lions be able to move away from carriers. As a growing human population pushes against the park, lions are more and more likely to meet infected animals. This reality increases the pressure on wildlife managers to find ways of understanding and preventing the disease called CDV.

CDV is named for its primary host--domesticated dogs. The epidemic probably started with dogs outside the park. Researchers suspect infected dogs interacted with wild hyenas and hyenas brought the disease to the park.

The disease attacks the victim's blood cells, lungs and brain, leaving a distinctive pattern of destruction and microscopic materials in cells which Munson refers to as "little viral footprints." Seeing this pattern allowed her to rule out pesticides or other possible killers as she started the detective work.

Suspecting CDV, she sent the tissue samples to a specialist for confirmation. Max J.G. Appel at Cornell University identified the virus using monoclonal antibodies--proteins that are virus specific. When Appel's proteins attached to the sample, he knew it was the CD virus.

Unfortunately, knowing what the disease is does not provide the scientists with an easy way of stopping it.

"Vaccinating wildlife is not feasible," says Munson. The vaccine used for dogs--a modified live virus--has a high possibility of causing the disease in wildlife.

But there are other options. East African government officials have started "Project Lion," a vaccination program for domestic dogs that live near the park.

In the meantime, wildlife managers are watching for further outbreaks. But it's difficult, notes Munson. Communication within the Serengeti is poor, and the area is full of susceptible carnivores. "Sick animals just disappear."

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