Latest Lion Aid News

Lions also get sick

Friday 22nd August 2014

FIV lion

At death’s door


In addition to all the other problems that lions have, they also suffer from a diversity of diseases. Some have been communicated by domestic animals – like canine distemper virus and bovine tuberculosis – but lions also have their own viruses that increase their fragility.

The lion above was photographed in the Masai Mara some time ago and shows all the classic symptoms of infection by Feline Immunodeficiency Virus. Like people infected with Human Immunodeficiency Virus, this lion shows massive muscle wasting especially noticeable on the hind legs. The lion was probably about 2-3 years old and would have died shortly after the picture was taken.

How prevalent is FIV? The few remaining large lion populations in Botswana, South Africa and Tanzania show infection rates of over 90%. Like HIV, these infected animals do not die immediately. Immunodeficiency viruses fall in a family called lentiviruses – they work slowly as the name implies. Once infected, the lion’s immune system becomes slowly eroded and their lifespan shortened. Five lion FIV strains have been identified with differing levels of virulence. Some lion populations, like those in Etosha National Park in Namibia and western African lions seem not to be infected – or at least not infected by currently known FIV strains.

Infection can occur across the placenta from infected mothers, by contact with saliva from infected individuals, by bite, and by mating. Cubs infected at birth or in utero have short lifespans, and many die stillborn. Other lions get infected later in life and can live further years before they succumb.

A lion with an impaired immune system will not be able to withstand all the parasitic infections they are daily exposed to. This includes infections from organisms like hookworm and tapeworm, micro-organisms like babesia and theileria, and a whole host of viruses.

Yet disease research among lion populations is not receiving the needed attention. LionAid would call on all researchers and veterinarians who handle wild lions to ensure that blood samples are taken. These should then be stored in national and international repositories to enable Africa-wide studies. So much more data is needed and is not being collected….

Obviously, we cannot do very much about these diseases. We cannot vaccinate lions against canine distemper and rabies and FIV. We cannot give them pills to cure worm infections and antibiotics to battle bacterial infections. What we can do is learn much more about the challenges diseases pose to remaining lion populations and act accordingly to prevent, for example, contact with domestic animals like domestic dogs that transmit canine distemper to a wide variety of wild carnivores.

An understanding of the epidemiology of diseases in wild animals is crucial to informed conservation management. Much more attention needs to be paid.

If you have not already signed up to our mailing list, you can add your name here and keep up to date with our ongoing work and, most importantly, DONATE to support our work to conserve the remaining fragile lion populations. Thank you.

Posted by Chris Macsween at 10:58

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