TB or not TB: Kruger’s rhinos have a new battle to fight
Tuburculosis is not killing rhinos in the Kruger Park, but that doesn’t mean it won’t result in the animals’ deaths
It was a single line in a 3,371-word statement issued by the environmental affairs department that caught the eye: There is an “emergence of bovine tuburculosis in both black and white rhino, albeit at a low incidence”.
Our rhinos have TB!
Apart from enemies, the iconic species in the Kruger National Park has to fight off poachers, and deal with the after-effects of a damaging drought – and now has to face another battle.
The first case of a TB death in the Kruger was on June 17 2016. Rangers, according to a study, reported a “weak, emaciated, adult female black rhinoceros” which had been stationary for 36 hours in a southern section of the park. External injuries were not obvious, the report states.
Mycobacterium bovis, more commonly known as bovine TB, was confirmed following extensive post-mortem testing.
This, according to Dr Peter Buss, is the “only case in black rhino” that has been found in the park.
Speaking to Times Select, Buss, the SANParks veterinary senior manager for veterinary wildlife services, said the disease had also been found in white rhino, but wasn’t the reason for their deaths.
“We’ve found six cases in white rhinos now, since 2016,” he said. “To put that in perspective, most of the cases were found during the drought. We think it was drought-related. The black rhino case is the only case where the TB was resulting in the death of the animal.”
Although the six white rhino had confirmed TB infections – as proven by postmortems – they had either been “poached or had other problems with them”. They were “not dying of the TB at all”, said Buss.
“In the [six] white rhino, the legions we found were very small; not much bigger than top joint of little finger. They’re not going to cause the rhino too much concern. The disease itself, what we’re seen so far, won’t impact the species hugely,” he said.
So, the TB isn’t killing them – but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have the potential, at least indirectly, to lead their deaths.
As the environmental affairs department statement notes, one of the key protection methods for the under-fire species is to move rhinos to other areas. According to Buss, this included moving them to private reserves, some smaller parks and areas where they are less under threat – including from poaching.
However, because of the risk of spreading the disease into the existing populations in those areas the rhino would have been located to, this is no longer happening. The situation was made worse by finding cases of TB – one of them a human strain – in two of the park’s elephant.
Effectively, animals that would have been safer elsewhere are now forced to stay in the Kruger, where 421 were poached in 2018, and 504 were killed for their horns in 2017.
“Within Kruger National Park, the translocation of rhinos from Kruger as part of South Africa’s biological management innovations of expanding ranges and establishing additional rhino strongholds are challenged by the emergence of bovine tuberculosis in both black and white rhino, albeit at low incidence,” the environmental affairs department said.
“South Africa’s veterinary regulations require several procedures to ensure that translocated rhinos do not serve as a source of spreading the disease into commercial stock production areas of South Africa.”
Buss explained further: “The fallout from finding these [TB] cases – not only in rhino, but also in elephant – is that it resulted in the department of agriculture, forestry and fisheries putting the Kruger National Park under quarantine. This restricts movement of all mammals, and in particular rhinos, from the park.
“One of our conservation management strategies was to translocate to other areas. Unfortunately … we can’t do that at the moment. That’s the implication, more than the disease itself.”
At the moment, the only way to know how many of Kruger’s rhinos are affected and how far the disease has spread is by looking at dead animals.
To overcome this – and also to find a way to allow the rhino to be moved again – a system of quarantining and testing individual rhino has been proposed. Essentially, the animal would be isolated in an enclosure, tested three times over a certain period, and then – if the agriculture department agrees with the protocol – they can be moved.
This will work in theory, and now the practical part of it – the testing and the physical creation of the quarantine area – needs to happen.
“We now have to do the implementation,” said Buss.
Until then, however, SANParks will be keeping a close eye on their rhino.
“If we ever get the chance to do a necropsy, whether the animal died from being poached or from a natural incident, that’s what we do. That’s our monitoring system at this stage,” he said.