On December 3, a female elephant calf was found dead, blood oozing out of its mouth, trunk and anus, in the Joypur range of Assam’s Dehing Patkai wildlife sanctuary. Two days later, about a kilometre away, another elephant carcass — a female adult — was found in a similar condition. Fearing an outbreak of the anthrax disease, samples were collected by the authorities, and both the pachyderms were cremated at the spot shortly after they were found.
On Tuesday, suspicions were confirmed as the calf tested positive for the disease. In response, the forest department has embarked on an immediate vaccination drive. “We have begun the vaccination drive already — the doses arrived from Guwahati yesterday,” said Pradipta Baurah, DFO, Dibrugarh, adding that all livestock and cattle in a 5km radius would be vaccinated. He confirmed that the second death was also caused by the anthrax.
Anthrax is a highly infectious zoonotic disease found primarily in herbivorous animals. It is caused by Bacillus anthracis, a rod-shaped spore-forming bacteria and can spread from animal to animal through contaminated soil and feed.
According to forest officials, an outbreak of the disease was reported among elephants in the 1940s in Upper Assam. But in recent years, reports have been sporadic. “The bacterial spores can become resistant and stick to the ground for years,” said Kushal Konwar Sarma, a well-known elephant veterinarian in the state, “Animals may eat this, and spread it to other animals. In 2019, two buffaloes died of anthrax in Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary [near Guwahati]. So such sporadic cases are reported time and again.”
Both the carcasses found in the Joypur range were cremated as per the Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) set by the the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) for elephant deaths caused by anthrax or suspected cases of anthrax. As per the SOP, “carcass in all Anthrax/suspected Anthrax cases should be burnt completely and under no circumstance be buried” and a “radius of 50 metres around the carcass should be sanitized using a flame gun.” “This protocol has been followed,” said DFO Baruah, “We are also trying to search the area to identify the source of the disease.”
Dr Khanin Changmai, a veterinarian with the Wildlife Trust of India based in Tinsukia, used the example of an anthrax outbreak in Odisha to stress on the importance of finding the source of the infection. “In Odisha’s Simlipal Tiger Reserve, about 25 elephants died of anthrax in four years (from 2016-19),” he said “I was posted there at the time and it it was very hard for us to found the source, and the route through which the disease had traveled. And we ended up losing a number of elephants.”
That is why, he said, in this case the forest department has not only embarked on an emergency vaccination drive but also begun to conduct awareness programs in the surrounding villages. “We are going from village to village to find out if there were similar, unrecorded deaths in the past, and if there were, how these carcasses were buried,” he said, adding that six-seven years ago, there was an anthrax outbreak among livestock in Naharkatia about 15 km away. “While the locals have told us that it is not an area elephants frequent, we are trying to look at other connections or links,” he said, “Even if such incidents happened years ago, we need to know since the spores can survive for many years.”
The Dehing Patkai wildlife sanctuary — where the elephants were found — is located within the larger Dehing Patkai elephant reserve, which spreads across three districts of Upper Assam (Dibrugarh, Tinsukia and Sivasagar) and is believed to be the last remaining contiguous patch of lowland rainforest area in Assam. Forest officials said that the reserve is home to at least 200 elephants.