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Study reveals poten­tial new dis­ease threats for wild snow leopards

pub­lished 15 June 2019 | mod­i­fied 15 June 2019

The first study to inves­ti­gate dis­ease threats to wild snow leop­ards has detected that expo­sure to infec­tions may pose a threat to this highly vul­ner­a­ble species, as well as local peo­ple and their livestock.

Snow leopard cubs The snow leop­ard has declined by 20% in the past two decades, leav­ing only an esti­mated 4,000 of this iconic species left in the wild.
Image: Global Envi­ron­ment Facility

The results of the study, pub­lished online on 5 June in Infec­tion Ecol­ogy & Epi­demi­ol­ogy, detected anti­bod­ies in the blood of wild cats to impor­tant pathogens that can also infect humans and other species.

Snow leop­ards (Pan­thera uncia) are a threat­ened and highly vul­ner­a­ble species of the moun­tain­ous ranges of Cen­tral Asia. The species is clas­si­fied as Vul­ner­a­ble in the IUCN Red List of Threat­ened Species. There are now as few as 4,000 snow leop­ards in the wild, and their num­bers con­tinue to decline. They face many threats, includ­ing poach­ing, habi­tat loss, the impact of cli­mate change and con­flict with herders. Emerg­ing infec­tious dis­eases can par­tic­u­larly impact on species where pop­u­la­tions are already depleted, and genetic diver­sity may be low. How­ever, infor­ma­tion is cur­rently lack­ing about whether wild snow leop­ards are also under threat from infec­tious disease.

Prompted by the dis­cov­ery of four snow leop­ards with unex­plained causes of death in the South Gobi Province of Mon­go­lia in 2011, an inter­na­tional team of researchers set out to inves­ti­gate impor­tant zoonotic pathogens that may impact con­ser­va­tion efforts. The researchers decided to tar­get disease-​causing pathogens that can cir­cu­late between dif­fer­ent species, as the area is also home to many other wild ani­mals, as well approx­i­mately 90 herder fam­i­lies and their goats, horses and domes­tic dogs.

Between 2008 and 2015, researchers from the Snow Leop­ard Trust and Snow Leop­ard Con­ser­va­tion Foun­da­tion cap­tured and immo­bilised 20 snow leop­ards, with all but one appear­ing to be clin­i­cally healthy and in good phys­i­cal con­di­tion. In these cats, sev­eral impor­tant zoonotic pathogens were detected in the anti­bod­ies in blood sam­ples includ­ing: Cox­iella bur­netii, which can cause Q fever in humans and also infect live­stock; Lep­tospira species, which are read­ily trans­mit­table to peo­ple and can lead to poten­tially life-​threatening infec­tions; and Tox­o­plasma gondii, a par­a­site for which feline species mem­bers are defin­i­tive hosts and shed­ders of the infec­tious oocysts, is capa­ble of infect­ing all warm-​blooded ani­mals (the parasite’s inter­me­di­ate host) and can cause tox­o­plas­mo­sis. Ticks col­lected from the snow leop­ards also con­tained many other types of poten­tially zoonotic bacteria.

A dis­ease epi­demic could be dev­as­tat­ing to wild snow leop­ards due to their low num­bers and many other threats to their exis­tence. Although the zoonotic pathogens iden­ti­fied in this study did not appear to cause ill­ness to the snow leop­ards in the short term, they have caused ill­ness in other wild cats. And so, there is now a need to estab­lish sur­veil­lance to mon­i­tor for poten­tial longer-​term dis­ease impacts on this vul­ner­a­ble population.

Carol Esson, lead author, One Health Research Group, Col­lege of Pub­lic Health, Med­ical and vet­eri­nary Sci­ences, James Cook Uni­ver­sity, Townsville, Australia

This invalu­able new knowl­edge will help researchers estab­lish a ref­er­ence for the health of the wild cats so that any changes can be iden­ti­fied if and when dis­ease occurs. This will not only help with under­stand­ing the needs and require­ments for the con­ser­va­tion of the endan­gered snow leop­ard but could also ben­e­fit local nomadic com­mu­ni­ties who live along­side them.

Rais­ing aware­ness in local com­mu­ni­ties about the pos­si­bil­ity of ill­ness in their ani­mals and them­selves could lead to improve­ments to herd health, boost­ing their pro­duc­tiv­ity and income,” says Esson.

(Source: Tay­lor & Fran­cis Group press release, 06.06.2019)

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