Kuno cheetah death: South African vet expert says signs point to case of ‘botulism’


The 6-year-old male South African Cheetah, Uday, who passed away at Kuno National Park Sunday, suffered from cardio-pulmonary failure, the preliminary autopsy carried out by a five-member team including a forensic scientist has found.

Veterinary wildlife specialist Professor Adrian Tordiffe from the University of Pretoria – which is partnered with the Wildlife Institute of India and with India’s National Tiger Conservation Authority and is also the South African government’s representative in the Cheetah project – has pointed to a “severe case of botulism” as a possible cause for the death but has added that further investigations will be required to confirm this.

The Madhya Pradesh forest department has sent samples of the cheetah’s blood, kidney, lungs, heart, etc to the School of Wildlife Forensic and Health in Jabalpur for further investigation.

“The initial autopsy carried out by the team of vets has found cardio-pulmonary failure. The Jabalpur institute will carry out a more detailed examination only after which we will get to know what caused the pulmonary failure,” said Madhya Pradesh chief wildlife warden J S Chauhan speaking with The Indian Express.

This is the second cheetah death in Kuno National Park after the first-ever translocation of African Cheetahs to India, the first death having occurred on March 27, when a Namibian Cheetah by the name of Sasha died of kidney complications.

Prof Tordiffe said that symptoms point to a condition called botulism – a rare but serious condition that is caused when a toxin attacks the body’s nervous system, eventually causing paralysis. The toxin is released by the Clostridium Botulinum bacteria, which is used medically to produce Botox.

“While I have not visited Kuno yet after the death, speaking to the team of vets, at this stage it looks like a case of severe neurotoxins, and most likely the Botulinum toxin released by bacteria. This toxin is often found in rotting meat. While the condition is very rare, it has been seen amongst the animals in South Africa. This condition happens when an animal or bird dies, and its carcass is in a pool of water where the toxin is released. Other animals drinking this water can get this condition. My assessment at this stage is that the cheetah ingested either an old carcass or drank from a pool of water where there was such a dead animal or bird. The toxin causes paralysis of the nerves, so that the animal is weak, cannot stand up properly, and cannot even lift its head because the toxin has paralysed its neck muscles – signs that we saw in this Cheetah,” said Prof Tordiffe.

Prof Tordiffe added that the cardio-pulmonary failure also points to a case of Botulism as the nerves would not be functioning properly to pump the heart and the cheetah’s lungs would also be affected.

“We will get to know more after the detailed examination is done. Nevertheless, Botulism is a very difficult disease to detect and we are often unable to do so in South Africa as well. In this case, there is literally nothing that the authorities could have done to prevent it. When you have a wildlife conservation project, to expect a 100 per cent survival rate is ridiculous. There will be some deaths – that is the natural order of things and the process of natural selection.

“Some animals will adapt quickly, while others will not. This is the reason why 20 cheetahs were brought to begin with. So that if some die, a meta-population could still be established. Having said that, we have rarely seen this disease in cheetahs, although we have seen it in lions in South Africa. This cheetah death was a rare, unusual, random event which could not have been prevented,” said Prof Tordiffe.

Prof Tordiffe said the African Cheetahs have so far been doing well, with three cheetahs having already established their territories in Kuno National Park.

Eight Namibian Cheetahs were brought and released into Kuno in September last year, with an additional 12 South African Cheetahs having been brought by the Indian government on February 18.

The South African Cheetahs had completed their quarantine period and had been released into the larger six square kilometre enclosure built at Kuno, just last week.

In the first-of-its-kind project in the world in which a big cat has been translocated from one continent to another, the African Cheetahs flew over 8,000 km to reach India where a viable population of at least 40-45 cheetahs will be established over the coming 5-10 years.


© The Indian Express (P) Ltd

First published on: 25-04-2023 at 22:53 IST

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