RINDERPEST, A DEADLY AND HIGHLY CONTAGIOUS disease that strikes cloven-hoofed animals, has infected cattle in a village near Tanzania's Ngorongoro crater, threatening not only more livestock but the abundant wildlife throughout the Serengeti ecosystem.
The infection, if unchecked, could be "an absolute disaster," says Michael Woodford, chairman of the Veterinary Specialist Group of the World Conservation Union's Species Survival Commission, with devastating economic ramifications for livestock owners and the wildlife tourism industry. There are 10 million unvaccinated cattle in the region, with the potential to spread the disease to millions of wild animals, among them wildebeest, giraffe, eland and bush pig.
"The big danger," Woodford says, "is that this particular strain of rinderpest is mild and may go unnoticed. But it's capable of mutating to a far more virulent form, and within a week it can spread like wildfire."
A drought has worsened the situation by forcing cattle and wildlife to congregate at the remaining water sources, where the chances of transmission increase. Some herdsmen go long distance to seek grazing land, thus introducing the virus into new areas.
Rinderpest had been largely eradicated throughout much of Africa. But a resurgence in east Africa since 1994 reportedly has wiped out half the buffalo and 80 percent of lesser kudu in Kenya's Tsavo National Park, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and affected wildlife in Nairobi and Amboseli national parks.
The FAO has appealed to conservation organizations and donors agencies such as the World Bank and the U.S. Agency for International Development to support a program to eliminate rinderpest from east Africa.