Maggots and skin infection behind latest cheetah deaths in India, confirms expert

Cheetahs died of shock from bacterial infection around their neck from satellite radio collars, expert says

Arpan Rai
Saturday 15 July 2023 06:17 BST
<p>File: A wild cheetah being released at Kuno National Park in Madhya Pradesh state</p>

File: A wild cheetah being released at Kuno National Park in Madhya Pradesh state

The two African cheetahs found dead in India’s Kuno national park this week perished due to bacterial infection in their blood after a maggot infestation in the wet skin underneath their radio collars that went unchecked, a leading South African expert has said.

Officials in India, Namibia, and South Africa are tracking the cheetahs borrowed from African nations using satellite radio collars weighing about 400g in order to monitor their movements in their new habitat in the central state of Madhya Pradesh.

But the video of second cheetah Surya’s autopsy on Friday, checked by veterinary wildlife specialist Adrian Tordiffe, showed that the wet skin on the cheetah’s neck and underneath the collar – likely from the heavy monsoon in India – left the wild cats prone to septicemia, a bacterial infection in the blood, that originates from skin infection.

“It was clear that there was quite a lot of dermatitis, an infection of the skin below the collar. Because of the very wet weather, water accumulates underneath the collar and causes the skin to be constantly wet, something that wouldn’t have happened if the collar wouldn’t have been there,” Mr Tordiffe, who is a cheetah expert on the reintroduction project, told The Independent.

He added: “This causes dermatitis, infection of the skin, which then attracts flies to the area, these flies lay eggs and you get maggots, the fly larvae then starts feeding on the infected tissue, puncturing holes in the skin and creating wounds.”

“Those wounds then lead to septicemia which very much fits with what happened to the cheetah that died on Monday,” the expert working with India on the project since 2020, said.

The latest findings eliminate the chances of violent interaction between the deceased cheetahs and leopards, or even the female cheetah around the enclosure as previously claimed by the Indian forest officials in charge of the project.

“These wounds, in my view, are almost certainly not caused by another animal. They’re actually caused by a problem that we actually did not foresee happening, because we collared cheetahs in Africa without any problems,” Mr Tordiffe said.

But very wet weather, which he says extends over a number of days within the Indian monsoon, caused a problem with the skin underneath the collar.

“Once those fly larvaes start invading the wounds, they actually spread along the back - and that would explain why we have wounds just over the neck area but also extending further along the back,” Mr Tordiffe said.

The infection is called myiasis, a problem animals face with flies if their larvae invades the skin which they don’t do with healthy and dry skin but when there’s moisture or a small infection with discharge.

“It’s near the area where cheetahs cannot lick or clean away the larvae on the back. It’s an area they can’t reach to groom themselves and remove the maggots,” he added.

“Once the skin is compromised, the bacteria spreads through the body and causes septicemia and then ultimately shocks the animal which is what we saw. The animal dies of shock.”

This finding, shared with Mr Tordiffe, is a moment of reckoning in the Indian project to revive a once-lost species, and find ways to monitor them without a heavy gear around their neck which could end up as a silent killer.

The radio collars, widely used in previous wildlife projects and still seen in nearly two dozen tigers in India, will likely have to go.

“It does mean we’re gonna have to take some action very very quickly, possibly to have a look at the collars and that there’s nothing negative underneath. If there is, some of these collars will have to be removed. That’s going to be quite a problem because it’s one of the most important ways in which we have been able to monitor and find them,” Mr Tordiffe said.

“If they are causing a problem, then there’s no choice but to remove the collars and monitor the animals without them,” he tells The Independent.

On Friday morning, officials at the Kuno National Park – India’s site for repopulating cheetahs on its soil – found Suraj in a lethargic state with flies seen hovering around its neck.

By 9am, the male cheetah was found dead on the spot, barely three hours later he was found wounded on its back and neck. This was the second such death within five days and eighth such since March, alarming several people tracking the project.

Of the total 20 borrowed cheetahs, India has lost five so far and out of four cubs born to a female cheetah in March, three have already succumbed to starvation and heat.

The growing rate of casualty among the cheetahs, all recorded as premature, have served as a setback to the project which aims to bring back the wild cat which went extinct in India in the 1960s.

Another transported cheetah is ailing from metatarsal frasture, The Independent has learnt. This is one of the male cheetahs which was involved in the violent clash between two coalitions last month, officials said.

All animals in the fight have sustained injuries but one wild cat which was seriously injured is suffering from a fracture in his foot bone.

Principal chief conservator of forests JS Chauhan confirmed the metatarsal fracture in one of the cheetah’s legs on Friday and said that the animal was under medical care. The officials overlooking the injured cheetahs had initially denied confirming these injuries.

Last week officials said the death of adult male cheetah Tejas was caused by “traumatic shock” triggered by injuries from a violent interaction with a female cheetah also present in the same enclosure.

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