Wildlife diseases have gained prominence in recent decades as research has elucidated their role in influencing population dynamics in free-range situations, thereby necessitating veterinary interventions for wildlife conservation. The disease Rinderpest caused mass mortalities of gaur in South India during the 1970s. Mortality of elephants due to Endotheliotropic Elephant Herpes Virus (EEHV) has recently been reported in free ranging elephant populations of south India which is the first incident in the Indian subcontinent. As such, continuous wildlife health monitoring and surveillance, proper diagnosis and timely veterinary interventions are essential for effective conservation of wildlife in general, and endangered species in particular.
PTR is one of only two protected areas in Kerala boasting the services of a full-time veterinarian. The Assistant Forest Veterinary Officer (AFVO), under deputation from the Animal Husbandry Department of the Government of Kerala, is based at Thekkady. With the able assistance of forest watchers, a lab technician and support staff, and a vehicle exclusively for veterinary field activities, the AFVO is responsible for routine health monitoring of tigers and other wildlife within the confines of the Reserve and adjoining areas. The activities of the AFVO include regular field visits to observe and assess individual and herd health of wildlife, microscopic examination of field samples for determining parasitic loads, performing necropsies of wildlife found dead from the Reserve and surrounding areas and training the field staff of PTR in sampling and health monitoring techniques, in coordination with Range Officers of the Reserve. A well-equipped laboratory has been set up with facilities for microscopy, sample collection and storage and conducting necropsies.
In a densely populated state like Kerala, where human-wildlife conflict issues grab headlines frequently, the veterinary officer works in close association with the Periyar Foundation, various stakeholders and organizations to mitigate conflict issues. These activities chiefly involve tranquilization of problem animals for translocation, holding in captivity or radio collaring for studying movement and land usage patterns. Sick or injured wild animals are treated in the field and when necessary, rescued and held at the in-patient facility attached to the official quarters of AFVO. They are then released back into the wild or rehabilitated in zoos and rescue centres following recovery, observing established guidelines. The AFVO also coordinates with the Forest Veterinary Officer, Konni and AFVO, Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary to deal with wildlife health and conflict issues in PTR and other protected areas in Kerala. Occasionally, the services of the AFVO are also required in adjoining states of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, with permission from the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Wildlife) and Chief Wildlife Warden, Government of Kerala.
Transmission of infectious diseases to wildlife, from domestic animals living close to protected areas presents a major threat to the survival of endangered species. The AFVO coordinates with local veterinarians of Kerala and Tamil Nadu, to monitor health of livestock in areas surrounding the Reserve, to detect disease outbreaks and carry out vaccination of fringe-area livestock against diseases such as Foot-and-Mouth disease (FMD). Several donkeys are used at Sabarimala, particularly during the pilgrimage season, and it is the responsibility of the AFVO to ensure that these animals are healthy and free from disease.
The services of the AFVO arealso invaluable in other diverse activities such as the establishment and maintenance of museum specimens and monitoring water quality within the Reserve.