Published: Saturday 15 January 2000

The sarcoptic mange (an itching disease that afflicts hairy and wooly animals) epidemic that killed several infant chimpanzees a few years ago in Tanzania's Gombe National Park is "most likely over", according to the director of chimpanzee research there.

Shadrack Kamenya of the Jane Goodall Institute told the African Wildlife Update that the worst outbreaks might be over, though "the sarcoptic mange parasites probably continue to exist in some members of the community". The most recent case of mange involved a 40-year-old chimp named Fifi, who showed mild signs of the skin disease on her ankle few months back. She had also suffered a slightly more serious outbreak in 1998 when she was pregnant. "In both cases, we think (Fifi's) immunity was relatively low and that is when the mange signs become noticeable," said Kamenya. "Most chimps have probably developed some sort of immunity or tolerance against the lower levels of the sarcoptic parasites.


The Gombe chimps have been the subject of one of the longest field studies of wildlife ever, begun by Jane Goodall in 1960. This is the first time that mange has afflicted the chimpanzee population at the Tanzanian park. According to Kamenya, "The first sign of the disease are small bumps on the skin of the hands, forehead, buttocks, feet and other areas. The bumps create intense irritation in these areas, causing the chimps to scratch themselves to the point of hair loss. The skin becomes pale or whitish and powdery, and the infected chimps spent so much time scratching they could not feed properly, nor mix with others."

Scientists first saw chimps with thinning hair and signs of physical distress in February 1997, but did not discover the cause until skin and organ samples were taken from an infant who died in July that year. The samples were sent to laboratories in Kenya and the us , and all came back with the same diagnosis: a mite from the genus Sarcoptes. Twenty chimpanzees have thus far been affected by the disease. Most were older chimps (both males and females) and nursing mothers. According to Kamenya, "Young males and older juveniles were unaffected by the disease, even ones who had very close contacts with the severely afflicted ones." Gombe National Park has three communities of chimpanzees: the Kasekela, Mitumba, and the Southern community.

Subscribe to Weekly Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.