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What’s Killing Freetown’s Chimps?

Deaths at a Sierra Leone sanctuary that stumped people for 15 years have now been linked to a bacterium that seems to cause similar ailments in humans. The staff at Tacugama sanctuary, veterinarians and biologists had conducted several investigations into the disease over the years. It was not contagious, did not infect humans, and did not appear at other sanctuaries, but killed chimps at Tacugama in an unmistakable, alarming pattern. The sanctuary, a major tourist attraction and the only place for orphaned chimps in Sierra Leone, houses an average of a little more than 90 chimps. These are Western chimpanzees, a critically endangered subspecies. Fifty-six chimps at Tacugama have died from this mysterious disease, in a country that recently made the chimpanzee its national animal. In 2016, Dr. Goldberg, an epidemiologist and veterinarian at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and head of the Kibale EcoHealth Project, was approached by the Pan African Sanctuary Alliance to try to solve the mystery. He and his colleagues at Wisconsin joined forces with other veterinarians and biologists in Africa and elsewhere to undertake a comprehensive analysis of blood and tissue from the dead chimps that had been frozen at a nearby hospital. So far, the research has not found the bacteria to be the sole cause of the disease, but it has opened a new window on the bacterial genus Sarcina, which may include more unidentified species that threaten the health of humans and animals.