Tigers’ survival ‘hit’ by human illness

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Limited access to heathcare is a problem not only for people but also threatens endangered wildlife such as the tiger, according to a new study led by a James Cook University doctoral student.

Based on research conducted in India, the study found that the incidence of diseases such as malaria and tuberculosis severely affected the management of the country’s national parks and wildlife sanctuaries.

Lead author Nandini Velho, a doctoral student at James Cook University in Australia and research associate at National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS), Bangalore, said that in one tiger reserve more than 70% of the 144 forest staff suffered from malaria over a four-year period.

“Malaria made many of the guards too sick to carry out their duties, and this likely led to an increase in wildlife poaching in the park,” she said.

Another of the authors of the study, James Cook University’s Distinguished Professor William Laurance said it was a serious and deadly problem.

“In a sense, malaria is not just sickening and killing people. It is killing wildlife as well—including endangered species such as the tiger,” Professor Laurance said.

Diseases like malaria and tuberculosis kill thousands of Indians every year. However, simple measures can significantly reduce the number of people who contract these diseases.

“Prevention is indeed better than cure”, Ms Velho said. “Not only is it cheaper and often easier to implement, it also means that fewer families will suffer from disease or death.”

Many of India\’s national parks and wildlife sanctuaries are in remote and rugged areas, where disease is a major problem for people.

The National Rural Health Mission has been in place from 2005 and seeks to improve healthcare access and quality for people in rural areas. Yet rugged terrain, institutional apathy and corruption combine to limit access to decent medical attention.

Led by Ms Velho, a team of wildlife scientists and doctors, which includes scientists from the Institute of Public Health in Bangalore, has been working in Pakke Tiger Reserve in Arunachal Pradesh.

They recently found that management of the reserve was severely affected by the number of malaria cases among its staff.

“Malaria is a huge problem in northeast India, with more than five out of every thousand people infected annually,” said Ms Velho. “Contrast this with less than two per thousand in the rest of the country. Even worse, malaria in the northeast is resistant to most antimalarial drugs.”

She said that a key concern was that there are hardly any government medical facilities in the area.

“This means the forest department has to spend almost 3% of its annual budget for the treatment of staff suffering from malaria—even though the health system is supposed to provide free malaria treatment for everyone.”

Professor Laurance said that many other Indian parks were imperilled by disease as well.

“Malaria is a serious problem in tiger reserves such as Namdapha and Dampa. It’s also prevalent in parts of eastern India, all along the foothills of the Himalayas, and in at least a dozen other tiger reserves across India.”

These findings show that, although the mandates of the forest and health departments are different, running wildlife sanctuaries effectively will require both departments to integrate well.

During the study, Ms Velho, with the help of Sumitomo Chemicals, a Mumbai company, distributed insecticide-treated mosquito nets to all forest watchers in anti-poaching camps in Pakke Reserve. As a result, the malaria infection rate has dropped ten-fold over the past year.

“This is surely good news,” said Ms Velho. “But for these gains to continue, the institutions responsible must step up and take responsibility. It doesn’t take much—just simple mosquito nets can make a huge difference.”

“Measures like this will ensure the forest watchers are safe and the wildlife they protect can sleep in peace,” she said.

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