Earlier this week, my coworker, Betsy, who also blogs here at Primatology.org, handed me a short little press release. The press release discussed the role of anthrax in the devastating die-off of great apes in what was once one of the most dense areas of primates in the world. It is titled, “Sudden Great Ape Die-Off in the Periphery of the Dja Biosphere Reserve,”and comes by way of Patrick Guislain and Jef Dupain who later published, in the American Journal of Primatology (AJP), this paper, “Anthrax in Western and Central African great apes.” Here’s the abstract the paper,

“During the period of December 2004 to January 2005, Bacillus anthracis killed three wild chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes troglodytes) and one gorilla (Gorilla gorilla gorilla) in a tropical forest in Cameroon. While this is the second anthrax outbreak in wild chimpanzees, this is the first case of anthrax in gorillas ever reported. The number of great apes in Central Africa is dramatically declining and the populations are seriously threatened by diseases, mainly Ebola. Nevertheless, a considerable number of deaths cannot be attributed to Ebola virus and remained unexplained. Our results show that diseases other than Ebola may also threaten wild great apes, and indicate that the role of anthrax in great ape mortality may have been underestimated. These results suggest that risk identification, assessment, and management for the survival of the last great apes should be performed with an open mind, since various pathogens with distinct characteristics in epidemiology and pathogenicity may impact the populations. An animal mortality monitoring network covering the entire African tropical forest, with the dual aims of preventing both great ape extinction and human disease outbreaks, will create necessary baseline data for such risk assessments and management plans.”

The authors of the AJP paper used PCR, a way of amplifying genes, to screen for the presence of Anthrax genes from the bodies of dead primates. In their paper they tabulate the data from their assays, and show how they can differentiate between other apathogenic variants. They make a very convincing argument on the importance of tracking down the impact of anthrax because of its potential to lie dormant in the ground and infect for hundreds of years. That is crucial considering our best interests are to conserve and preserve these species for as long as we can; we don’t want another factor affecting that main goal.

All throughout last year we posted on how a virus, Ebola, has been decimating primates in the Congo… but we largely were unaware of the impact of other pathogens that are contributing to this die-of. As the authors of this paper advocate there is a necessity to understand other key players that are affecting the conservation of great apes.