Now a rhino TB threat

The Mercury - - NEWS - 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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