Please don’t pet the hyrax

Leishmaniasis, a parasitic disease transmitted due to these cute critters, necessitates cautious behavior – and a nix on the twilight walks where hyraxes live.

A colony of rock hyraxes in the North (photo credit: ARIKK/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)
A colony of rock hyraxes in the North
I f you’re a nature lover, the sight of hyraxes hanging out on their home rocks makes you smile.
The furry creatures, which look like overgrown guinea pigs, bask peacefully in the sun with their families, intelligently protected by a watcher – usually the big daddy – who shrieks a warning when predators or humans approach. They then disappear before you can blink, having scuttled into handy crevices.
Hyraxes have an endearing habit of singing – although the grunts, yips, trills, wails and whistles are hardly melodious. In villages or kibbutzim with sizable hyrax populations, their midnight concerts are heard loud and clear, disturbing humans trying to get a night’s sleep.
These mammals live in rocky outcroppings, from the Negev to the north of Tiberias; they are protected by law. But their innocent gambols in the sunshine hide a less pleasant – indeed dangerous – side to hyrax life: Many of the cute little guys are infected with leishmaniasis, a parasitic disease that causes lesions and long-lasting skin ulcers on humans.
There are two strains of leishmaniasis in Israel that affect humans. One is caused by the Leishmania tropica parasite, found in hyraxes that inhabit rocky areas of Judea, Samaria and the Galilee. The second, caused by the Leishmania major parasite, infects gerbils, voles and other rodents in the Arava, the Negev and around Beit She’an. According to the Environmental Protection Ministry, leishmaniasis infections have increased since the year 2000, spreading to new regions in Israel.
Hyraxes, being shy, don’t transmit the disease through contact with humans, nor does it pass from person to person. The culprits are the sandflies that first sting hyraxes, then seek nourishment via human blood, like mosquitoes.
I became interested in the issue when an American friend living in Ma’aleh Shomron called me about a flyer and a magnet she had received from the Environmental Protection Ministry, distributed to everyone in the community.
The material explained about hyraxes, sandflies and leishmaniasis, but as it was all in Hebrew, my friend found it difficult to read. I discovered that while there’s been plenty of information published in Hebrew and Arabic, there’s been – up to now – almost nothing in English.
Tamar Yeger, head of the ministry’s pest control department and coordinator of the government team studying leishmaniasis, granted Metro a comprehensive interview. Several days afterward, she emailed me with the welcome news that basic facts about the disease and prevention are now available in English on the ministry’s website.
“Leishmaniasis major has been known in Israel for a very long time,” says Yeger. “We know of cases that occurred even before independence. It’s found mostly in the South and around Beit She’an. You might say that’s the lighter strain; the tropica strain has only been seen in the last 20 years, and exists in Judea, Samaria, the Galilee and north of Tiberias. Recently, it’s also been discovered in the Carmel and in Zichron Ya’acov, where there are rocky places hospitable to hyraxes.”
While research is ongoing, there’s currently no vaccine for the disease.
The Health Ministry, together with the Environmental Protection Ministry, is testing methods to control the sandflies in 18 affected communities throughout the country. As hyraxes are a protected species, the body that issues permission to control them is the Israel Nature and Parks Authority; these bodies are working together to research and monitor the disease and its agents, and to educate the public about them.
“Prevention must be undertaken by the individual,” explains Yeger. “People in affected communities must place fine screens on all windows and doors. The hours that sandflies are most active are from dusk to dawn, so people walking or sitting outdoors during those times should apply a mosquito-repellent product to any exposed skin. Wearing long sleeves and long pants helps; in other words, expose as little skin surface to the flies as possible. Indoors, it helps to have the air conditioning on, as the flies don’t like cold or drafts.”
The government team monitors sandfly activity in order to advise communities when they must protect themselves, and when they may relax the rules. “We know that those methods can be hard to live with,” Yeger adds, “especially since the sandfly is active for much of the year, from May to October. On the other hand, we’ve all gotten used to wearing sunscreen any time we go out in the sun; we can get used to protecting ourselves from sandflies in the same way.
“This is the third year of a three-year study. We hope to construct a workable plan against the illness – how best to deal with the host animals and the sandflies – by 2016.”
What should be done by people whose homes were built on top of rocks where hyraxes live? Yeger explains: “If a home is built on a rock, it gets complicated. When older communities were built, we didn’t know that hyraxes are the host reservoir of leishmaniasis. Today, we know better, and build smooth walls [where hyraxes can’t enter] around new neighborhoods.
“Homes are no longer built over rocks; where there are rocky outcroppings in moshavim, kibbutzim or other communities, we take the rocky place apart. The hyraxes migrate out of the area, or we capture them and put them under the protection of the INPA. I’m referring to inhabited areas, not open areas, where we don’t interfere.”
“Although the Health Ministry is the proper body to consult for statistics, I may say that in some communities there have been dozens of cases, even many dozens,” she continues, pointing to places like Ma’aleh Adumim where there has been a high incidence of leishmaniasis.
Sandfly bites look like small mosquito bites, and sometimes go unnoticed; but over a period of several weeks, they develop into lesions, then into crater- like infected ulcers of different sizes.
If ulcers from leishmaniasis tropica are neglected, the parasite may enter the bloodstream and cause fever, weakness, and enlarged spleen and liver. A dermatologist should be consulted immediately if a lesion is identified, Yeger warns.
“With leishmaniasis major, treatment is simple – usually application of Leshcoten ointment over several months clears up the infection, although a scar will remain.
“Leishmaniasis tropica is more serious; treatment is often conducted in the hospital, either over two weeks as an inpatient or on weekly outpatient visits. It depends on the severity of the infection. The treatment is prolonged and often painful; all that, unfortunately, because we have no vaccine against the disease.”
So should visitors stay away from places where hyraxes thrive? “No,” says Yeger, “Families and visitors shouldn’t be afraid to visit. But they should be told to apply mosquito repellent in the evening, and keep screened windows shut.”
For information in English, see: Pest%20Control/Pages/Sand-Fly-and- Leishmania.aspx. A map on the site illustrates the 50 Israeli communities where leishmaniasis is known to exist.