Dead Hippos Must Be Burned Not Eaten to Stop Dangerous Anthrax Outbreak

An outbreak of what is believed to be anthrax poisoning has killed more than 100 hippos and at least 20 water buffalo in Namibia's Bwabwata National Park, and local officials fear it could infect other species as well if left unchecked. Photos published by a leading local newspaper show the dead hippos splayed on their side in shallow water, with some animals separated by just a few body lengths. According to Reuters, corpses have also been found in neighboring Botswana.

If the infection is confirmed to be anthrax, that wouldn't be particularly uncommon—more than 200 Ugandan hippos died in a 2004 outbreak and more than 80 died during a separate event in 2010.

Although the current outbreak, which began on October 1, is ongoing, the current death toll matches these previous infections in scale. "Over 100 hippos died in the past week. The cause of death is unknown but the signs so far show that it could be anthrax," Pohamba Shifeta, Namibia's environment minister told the wire service Agence France-Presse earlier this week.

In general, scientists think hippos catch anthrax from snacking on the corpses of infected prey—or even of other hippos. Previous outbreaks have also been blamed on low river levels, which could result in hippos drinking water contaminated with the anthrax bacterium.

10_12_hippo A hippo in South Africa, away from the suspected anthrax outbreak. Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

During this outbreak, officials are particularly concerned about what happens to the corpses of sickened animals, which they fear hippos, other animals and humans will eat, spreading the infection further. To address that concern, officials want to burn corpses when found, but according to a report published yesterday in the local newspaper New Era, only three dead hippos have been burned so far, and officials are still tracking down personal protective gear to keep staff safe. In 2011, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention helped Zambia's government trace an outbreak of anthrax in humans to infected hippo meat.

Officials are also reminding people not to eat dead animals they may find in the park. Bwabwata National Park is located in Namibia's northeastern panhandle, which nestles between Botswana in the south and Angola in the north. But unlike many national parks in the U.S. and indeed in Namibia as well, Bwabwata is also home to about 5,500 humans. Although anthrax is not contagious among humans, any way that the bacterial spores can enter the body can be infectious—including breathing them in, as during the 2001 mail scare in the U.S., as well as eating or drinking contaminated substances.

The infection is quite rare in Americans but remains a problem globally and for animalsscientists fear it may contribute to population declines among chimpanzees.

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