KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — A virus normally found mostly in dog-like animals has killed a third of the lions in Africa’s Serengeti National Park, a University of Tennessee scientist reports in the current issue of Nature.
Dr. Linda Munson, a pathologist in UT’s College of Veterinary Medicine, said a 1994 outbreak of a type of canine distemper virus, or CDV, has killed more than 1,000 lions in the Serengeti and Masa Mara areas of East Africa since 1993.
CDV is thought to have caused several fatal epidemics in foxes, wild dogs and other animals in Africa and elsewhere, but the outbreak identified by Munson’s research team is the first known to be fatal to lions.
The source of the epidemic was probably the domestic dogs belonging to villagers living near the park, Munson said. An outbreak of distemper among these dogs, most of which are not vaccinated, preceded the lion epidemic, she said.
The virus may have been spread to the lion population by hyenas, which live among both domesticated dogs and lions, she said.
“CDV is a canine virus that for years has sometimes affected raccoons, ferrets, and just a few cases in cats,” Munson said. “But something happened about 1991 and it started affecting big cats in zoos, and then we had the big epidemic in 1994, and it’s also affecting hyenas now.”
Munson, whose work is primarily funded by a faculty research grant from UT, says she does not know why the virus suddenly extended its range of hosts and became fatal to lions. She is part of an international research team tracking the virus globally to see if it has affected other species of carnivores.
African government officials have implemented a program to vaccinate domestic dogs near the Serengeti, Munson said. The epidemic seems to have subsided and the death rate of Serengeti lions has returned to normal, but future outbreaks are a threat to endangered species, she said.
“The CDV epidemic clearly emphasizes the need for continued monitoring for infectious diseases in valuable wildlife resources and for initiating vaccination programs for domestic animals in contact with wildlife,” Munson said.
Nature is a weekly international journal of science.
Contact: Dr. Linda Munson(423-974-8215)