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Deadly Virus Threatens Endangered Pandas and Tigers Alike

Jan 12, 2015 12:43 PM EST
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Chinese wildlife centers are currently in a state of panic after an outbreak of canine distemper virus (CDV) already led to the death of two extremely endangered giant pandas in their country. Now, with emergency measures in place, officials hope the iconic animals can weather this storm, even while conservationists warn that pandas are not the only ones at risk.

Officials confirmed to the Chinese press Monday that a second giant panda has died in the country since December, raising concerns that a canine distemper epidemic may be on hand.

Just last week, the Shaanxi Rare Wildlife Rescue and Research Centre in Xi'an closed its doors to the public after discovering CDV in three of its giant pandas. According to the The Independent, an emergency response plan was hastily drawn up, and improved treatment provisions were introduced, but that didn't stop the recent death. The remaining two pandas are both reportedly in critical condition.

China's 8-year-old panda Chan Cheng was the first of these incredibly rare animals to die of CDV in 2014. However, experts are quick to point out that this was known purely because Chan Cheng and the latest victims are in captivity. If the disease spreads to wild populations, it may spell disaster, as there are only 1,600 or so giant pandas left in their shrinking natural habitats, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

Still, some experts say that we should be more concerned for other endangered species first, as the giant panda has a famously powerful immune system. Over 90 percent of know panda CDV infections have resulted in survival.

True to its name, the virus was first detected in dogs, and has since been associated with members of the canaidae (fox, wolf, coyote), procyonidae (panda, raccoon, ect.), and mustelidae (ferret, badger, otter) families. It has also been seen in big cats, with a 1994 outbreak in the Serengeti resulting in the deaths of more than 1,000 lions.

A study published in the journal PLOS One late last October warns that the incredibly rare Amur tiger (Panthera tigris altaica) may be the most vulnerable of all to this disease. (Scroll to read on...)

(Photo : Wiki CC0 - Derek Ramsey)

According to the WWF, there are only up to about 450 of these majestic, but endangered cats left in all the wild. Worse, the Amur tiger's habitat is now restricted to two provinces in the Russian Far East and small plots along the border areas of China, and possibly North Korea.

Using a series of mathematical models, researchers determined that isolated Amur populations of 25 or less would be exceptionally vulnerable to an outbreak, escalating a single CDV scenario to epidemic proportions. This in turn would raise the chances of the species' extinction in the next several decades by a whopping 55 percent.

The solution, the researchers propose, is to ensure that these small groups of tigers remain separate from one another, so that even if one group dies, the virus has no chance to jump to a new population.

"In lieu of a practical means of delivering vaccines to wild tigers, the most viable strategy to ensure their conservation is the maintenance of large connected populations within protected areas that buffer the effects of local declines," the researchers wrote in their study.

However, there are consequences for such an approach as well. Splintering and isolating these groups, which is already happening through road development and illegal logging, would lead to less genetic variety and make it even harder for aggressive and independent males to strike out on their own to find a mate.

Ullas Karanth, the science director of Wildlife Conservation Society's Bangalore-based Asian chapter, argues that some experts are jumping the gun, and preventative action against CDV isn't and shouldn't be necessary.

"Thinking we can control this is totally unrealistic," he told The Guardian, arguing that efforts should be more focused on stopping poaching - a real and immediate problem. "We have to live with it now, and assess whether [CDV is] really serious yet."

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

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