Humans give Kerala elephants a TB scare

Pigs are being blamed for the latest human pandemic - swine flu. But conservationists fear that humans are doing equal damage to some of their jumbo pets. A study by the Indian Institute of Sciences revealed that slightly over 15% of captive elephants in south India suffer from tuberculosis, apparently due to their little masters. The Asian Elephant Research & Conservation Centre, which studied 387 captive elephants in Kerala, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Andaman and Nicobar Islands, found 15.25% of the studied animals were suffering from tuberculosis.
At least 16 of the 63 temple elephants and 24 of the 160 privately-owned elephants were affected by tuberculosis. And of the 164 elephants maintained by the various forest departments, only 10 were found to be affected by tuberculosis. "The data shows temple elephants are more susceptible to tuberculosis," Dr Jacob V Cheeran, who led the study funded by US-based Elephant Care International, said.
"India has the highest incidence of tuberculosis. It's a zoonotic disease, which can pass from animals to humans and vice versa. The high incidence of tuberculosis among temple elephants shows that they got it from humans," he said.

The study covered Thrissur, Palakkad, Malappuram and Ernakulam districts in Kerala, where indigenous medicine has been developed exclusively for elephants. "During festival seasons, hundreds of tuskers are decked up and made to stand amid huge crowds. In such an atmosphere, it's easy for animals to get infected. Elephants may also contract the disease if revellers spit on elephant fodder or sneeze on the elephants," he said. "Moreover, elephants and mahouts share a special bond. Many a times, mahouts share their food with the elephants and unwillingly end up passing on any infection they may have," he said.
Besides, keeping the animal in closed quarters and transporting them atop trucks makes them prone to contracting such diseases.

Though the bacterial infection is not as dangerous as the viral one, which mutates during its journey from species to species, scientists fear the epidemic could spread to the wilderness. "Captive elephants are sometimes sent to wild sanctuaries. Even cattle are allowed to graze in most sanctuaries. These animals may spread diseases like tuberculosis to wild animals," he said. The group is now pinning its hopes on the Union budget to begin the next stage of survey to examine whether elephant tuberculosis has spread to the wild.

Reports: DNA

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