As if poaching isn't bad enough, ellies might have TB
Kruger Park tuskers face a possible outbreak of a human strain of tuberculosis
It took a sedative dart to the backside and a dramatic 20-minute helicopter pursuit to bring a Kruger National Park bull elephant to the ground.
It would not have realised it, but the harassment by park rangers and a team of scientists was for the animal’s own good.
The two-ton male is one of more than 50 Kruger elephants being tested for a new potential human-brought threat challenging its existence.Not only are the park’s elephants facing increased threats from poachers, they now also have to deal with a possible outbreak of a human strain of tuberculosis infecting the species.
Alarms were first raised when human TB was discovered in a dead elephant in 2016. Since then researchers have been working to determine the extent of the problem by conducting sporadic tests on the animals.
On Wednesday, Professor Michelle Miller from Stellenbosch University and her team did a bronchial wash on the male to get a sample to test.This involved putting large pipes down the animal’s airway, flushing out mucous and any bacteria to be sent to the lab for screening.
Miller said while TB from cattle had been found in a number of the park’s animals, the human strain was a first.
“The discovery of TB in the elephant in 2016 was very unique to Kruger because it was a human strain of TB,” the National Research Fund chair told Times Select.
“It’s the first case of human TB in this park, even though bovine TB has been documented in a number of different species in the Kruger.
“Human TB in elephants has been documented in captive elephants in zoos around the world and most recently in wild Asian elephants in India, so this is an emerging disease.”So far no new infections have been found.
The scientists are unsure if the park’s 12,000 elephants are able to clear a TB infection themselves or if it remains in a latent state within the animals.
Transmission of the disease from humans to elephants is thought to come from human-contaminated materials, such as rubbish or discarded food, that the elephants come in contact with. “These animals are already under threat from poaching and habitat loss and are now facing the potential impact of a disease,” Miller said. “If we find several animals with TB it tells us there is a higher prevelance and there is a great concern. If not, then maybe it was just a sporadic case.”But elephants, and the much talked about rhino, were not the only animals in the park under threat.
Conservation efforts were also under way to protect the Kruger Park’s fish, which, while not as popular as the big five, were equally as important to the ecology of the reserve.
South African National Parks freshwater ecologist Robin Petersen said the park was busy with a project to remove all redundant dams and weirs.
The man-made structures prevented fish from migrating through the park’s river systems and reaching their traditional spawning grounds.“Because of barriers the river is not connected anymore,” Petersen said. “Fish can’t migrate and move upstream and downstream to get to their feeding and spawning grounds. “Barriers have huge implications and fish that can’t migrate see drops in population.” To date, 22 dams and weirs have been demolished. Petersen said South Africa is the only country in Africa that is removing redundant dams and structures as barriers in rivers for ecological reasons.