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Epidemic strikes possums in the Wanaka region

5 August 2005

Epidemic strikes possums in the Wanaka region

The Department of Conservation is advising people to avoid touching possums in the Wanaka region that are showing signs of an unknown fatal disease.

"While the suspected disease appears to affect only possums at this stage, we strongly recommend that people wear gloves if handling them," DOC Otago Conservancy animal pest ranger Bruce Kyle said today.

"It does not appear to have affected livestock or other wildlife, so it looks like a possum-specific disease at this stage."

DOC was informed by Makarora resident Gary Charteris of possums behaving strangely - walking about during the day - and being found dead in high numbers on Monday this week.

"Several possums were found dead inside and under huts in the Wilkin Valley, which is uncharacteristic," Mr Kyle said.

On Wednesday the department sent a letter informing landowners in the lower Wilkin-Makarora and West Wanaka areas seeking their help to find out more about the suspected disease.

Landowners were asked to look out for these animals, and advise DOC or Animal Health Board representatives in the Wanaka area and Dunedin if they find dead or sick possums on their property.

Any live, infected animals obtained will be sent to AgResearch at Invermay for diagnosis.

Mike King of Mt Albert Station reported that dead possums had been found on the property, and that they had found sick possums during the day. Within a matter of days virtually all possums seemed to have disappeared from the property.

Similar observations have been reported at West Wanaka Station.

A virus called "wobbly possum disease" has previously occurred in New Zealand, with the main symptoms being scouring and wasting away of the hindquarters, feeding during the day, trembling and bobbing of the head, unsteady gait, and lethargy.

"If it is wobbly possum disease, it would be atypical, because the possums appear to have been in reasonable condition at death," Mr Kyle said.

This weekend, a small group of Animal Health Board representatives are carrying out a ground survey in the Makarora/Young valleys to try to establish the front of the suspected epidemic, based on evidence received to date.

ENDS


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