Malaria hampers wildlife upkeep in NE

Itanagar: Infectious diseases afflicting people in remote areas of the Northeast are not only a problem for the humans, they also indirectly affect the wildlife in sanctuaries.

A study conducted by the Bangalore-based National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS) has revealed how malaria among the staff in the Pakke Tiger Reserve in East Kameng district of Arunachal Pradesh is posing a threat to the upkeep of tigers there.

A team of wildlife scientists and doctors led by Nandini Velho, a doctoral student at the James Cook University in Australia and research associate at NCBS, found that the management of the tiger reserve was severely compromised by malaria cases among its staff.

“Prevention is indeed better than cure. Not only is it cheaper and often easier to implement, it also means that fewer families will suffer from disease or death,” Velho said in her report.

She noted that many of India’s national parks and wildlife sanctuaries are in remote and rugged areas where disease is a major problem for the residents.

The study noted that a National Rural Health Mission has been in place from 2005 which seeks to improve access to healthcare by people in rural areas, but rugged terrain, institutional apathy and corruption combine to limit its scope.

“Malaria is a huge problem in the Northeast with more than five out of every thousand people infected annually,” Dr Umesh Srinivasan, a medical doctor and wildlife biologist from NCBS, who is a member of the research team, said.

He said that less than two in thousand in the rest of the country are affected by malaria, whereas in the Northeast the disease is resistant to most anti-malarial drugs.

The team, which also includes scientists from the Institute of Public Health in Bangalore, found that over 70 per cent of the 144 forest staff of Pakke Tiger Reserve suffered from malaria over a four-year period.

Malaria made many of the guards too sick to carry out their duties which led to an increase in wildlife poaching in the park.

“It is a serious and deadly problem,” said William Laurance, professor at James Cook University and a member of the team.

“In a sense, malaria is not just sickening and killing people. It is killing wildlife as well including endangered species such as the tiger”.

“A key concern is that there are hardly any government medical facilities in the area,” public health specialist and a co-author of the study, Dr Prashanth said.

This means, he said, the forest department has to spend almost three per cent of its annual budget for the treatment of staff suffering from malaria even though the treatment for the disease is supposed to be free.

Malaria is a serious problem in tiger reserves such as Namdapha and Dampa in the state too. It is also prevalent in parts of eastern India, all along the foothills of the Himalayas, and in at least a dozen other tiger reserves across India.

Velho said anti-malaria measures would ensure that forest watchers are safe and the wildlife they protect are also safe. (PTI)

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