The Mercury

Now a rhino TB threat

- Tony Carnie

SOUTH Africa’s poaching-beleaguere­d rhino population could be facing a new hidden risk – tuberculos­is.

Animal disease experts at the Medical Research Council and Stellenbos­ch University say that while there is no “immediate risk” to rhinos from TB, the disease could become a cause for concern if new veterinary restrictio­ns were placed on moving disease-infected rhinos to more secure locations because of poaching.

Writing in a recent academic journal, Professor Michelle Muller, of Stellenbos­ch University, and fellow researcher­s said rhinos were already under pressure from horn poaching and habitat loss.

“With a decreasing number of animals, any additional losses, even due to sporadic disease, is a concern for the survival of the species. Many of the remaining wild rhinos live in areas that have endemic bovine TB, as well as being in countries with a high human TB burden.”

Muller said two of the largest rhino reserves, Kruger National Park and Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park, were also home to TB-carrying buffalo.

“As documented in other wildlife species, TB could establish itself in a rhinoceros population but remain unrecognis­ed for decades, with detrimenta­l implicatio­ns for wildlife conservati­on at large, should such animals be moved to uninfected areas or facilities.”


Miller has previously warned that TB develops over a period of months to years and can lead to lower milk production in mothers, a decrease in fertility, loss of body condition, coughing and possibly death.

While there were still large knowledge gaps, it appeared that the disease was exacerbate­d during drought.

There was also evidence from Hluhluwe-Imfolozi that buffalo infected with bovine TB had a lower population growth rate than normal.

Animal health experts who modelled the possible effects of bovine TB in the lion population in Kruger National Park had predicted a population decline of between 35% and 75% over 50 years.

Regarding TB in rhinos, Muller and her colleagues said very little was known so far about the impact and therefore urged a greater research focus.

“Since TB is a controlled disease, regulatory agencies can impose movement restrictio­ns which would affect potential reintroduc­tion and programmes designed to move rhinos to more secure locations and to maintain genetic diversity.”

There was still a shortage of tools to diagnose TB infections accurately in wild animals.

However, the Animal TB Research Group at Stellenbos­ch was investigat­ing new bloodbased tests.

“Recently, our group published a novel test for TB in buffaloes. Since little is known about how the rhino immune system responds to disease, our group is planning a study to characteri­se these responses and develop tools that can be used to determine the risks of infection in these species.”

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