There were a total of 22 elephants in the Karlapat Wildlife Sanctuary. At least six have died in the last two months. (Representational Image)
The death of six elephants in the Karlapat Wildlife Sanctuary in Kalahandi earlier in January-February was due to haemorrhagic septicemia caused by bacteria Pastuerella multoceda, according to a preliminary report by a central team set up by the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change. The elephants are likely to have contracted the bacteria from cattle residing at Tentulipada village, a small hamlet of 12 households, inside the sanctuary.
The findings come following the postmortem examination of the elephants and the two cattle found dead in the sanctuary. The postmortems as well as RNA extraction tests were conducted at the Orissa Veterinary College and the samples have now been sent to the Indian Veterinary Research Institute in Bareilly, UP, for final confirmation.
The team members included Dr Karikalan Mathesh, Scientist, IVRI, Dr Prajna P Panda, National Coordinator, Elephant Cell, Dr Niranjan Sahoo, Professor, OUAT and Padma Shri K K Sarma from Assam Veterinary College. The team visited Karlapat Wildlife Sanctuary in Kalahandi South Division and investigated the sites of death of the elephants.
The elephants are believed to have died anytime between January 29 and February 14 this year and their carcasses were found near water bodies. All the seven elephants (5 adults and two calves) found dead were females.
Tests have confirmed that all the dead animals had very high levels of Pastuerella multoceda.
“The Tentulipada hamlet has just 12 households and the residents keep livestock including cattle, sheep and goats. The cattle are short in height, bare boned and produce very little milk, and are usually used by villagers for tilling the land. They are also set free in the forest for days for grazing. The deceased elephants had initially been tested for Anthrax and Herpes – two common diseases found in elephants. But when the team found a cow carcass in the forest, it was also tested and high levels of Pastuerella multoceda were found in it. Like the elephants, the cow was also pregnant. The first dead elephant was found in close proximity to the village and the second elephant was also found nearby. The dead cow had been left in the forest for 15 days, but the practice was quite common in the village and had not caused any alarm,” said a ministry official.
Pastuerella multoceda is a common bacteria found in the respiratory tract of herbivores, especially in cattle. Only in times of stress in the animal, or when the animal has low immunity or is unhealthy – as is the case with the cattle in this particular village — that the bacteria multiplies rapidly and moves from the respiratory tract to the bloodstream. This then causes diarrhoea and often haemorrhagic septicemia, which can be fatal.
In the case of the Karlapat Wildlife Sanctuary, two cows and five elephants were pregnant and two elephant calves were newly born. “There is stress in the body of animals when they are pregnant which makes them vulnerable to diseases,” said the official.
According to the MoE report, the cattle would have passed on the disease to the elephants through contamination of the soil through their faecal droppings or contamination of the water bodies. The disease is then believed to have swept through the herd through direct contact. There are nine elephants in this particular herd, out of which seven are dead from the disease.
There were a total of 22 elephants in the sanctuary, say officials. Veterinary and forest officials in Odisha are now on high alert and in mission mode to prevent the disease from spreading further. Eight teams of ten forest officials have been patrolling the sanctuary, tracking the two surviving elephants for signs of the disease as well as ensuring that they are kept away from the other elephants in the forest.
The veterinary department has, meanwhile, been conducting an urgent cattle vaccination campaign not only in Tentulipada but in all villages in and around the forest, outside the sanctuary borders, as a result of which 90 per cent of the cattle in the district – around 6,000 — have been vaccinated. Stagnant water inside the sanctuary has also been treated with bleaching powder to avoid further spread and water samples have been collected from different spots for testing.