Grabbing TB by the horns

2008-07-23 00:00

“Vala! Vala! Vala!” The morning sun just touches the tips of the trees in the acacia savanna veld. With a last heave and push, with thick mud clogging up the wheels of the sliding door, it closes just in time before the African buffalo, number 86, charges into it. The impact of 800 kilograms of angry muscle on steel can be felt in the pit of your stomach. The day before, the buffalo managed to scale the door of the crush, causing people, tea cups and rusks to scatter in all directions.

The expert eye of antelope capture officer Zephania Mkhwanazi makes a judgment on the amount of immobilising drug to give each of the animals in the crush. After 18 years of capture experience he seldom makes mistakes. In this business you can’t afford to.

Within seconds, a tranquilliser is loaded into a pole syringe and handed to Mkhwanazi. A number of animals are ushered into the crush and, after receiving the tranquilliser, into the first holding pen.

It is here that men wait at the door, armed with blindfolds and courage. Each buffalo is tagged and, to minimise stress, blindfolded. Sometimes the drugs take a while to take effect and one particularly fierce-looking bull is still stomping around. With much laughing and cajoling an unlucky man is pushed into the boma. He grabs the bull by the tail, but it takes a number of men a gruelling few minutes to wrestle the animal to the ground. Their faces show how much they love their job.

Hovering behind them is the rest of the team. Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife vet Dr Dave Cooper, Department of Agriculture animal health technicians Debbie Cook and husband and wife team Warren and Alicia McCall, the section ranger, the buffalo project manager, researchers, two cadets and three volunteers. They jump into action. Each animal is prepared for the tuberculosis (TB) test — a small section on both sides of the neck is shaved. A purified protein derivative of bovine TB is injected into the skin on the left side and avian TB on the other. If the animal has TB, these patches will swell as antibodies rush to the injected site to fight the infection. Swelling on the left side confirms that the animal has bovine TB (bTB) and swelling on the right side will indicate a non-specific reaction to other mycobacterium in the environment.

It is the annual buffalo capture at Makhamisa, the wilderness section of the 97 000-hectare Hluhluwe iMfolozi Park in KwaZulu-Natal, managed by Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife. With a current population of about 4 600 animals, the African buffalo are among the most abundant large herbivores in the park. Between 1992 and 1998, surveys were conducted in the park to determine the extent to which TB had spread. Whole herds were culled in areas where the prevalence of TB was high. When management realised that TB had spread throughout the park and there were herds with a prevalence of up to 60% and more, they decided to implement a costly programme that involved testing individual buffalo and culling only the infected ones. Over a period of 10 years, 5 190 buffalo have been tested and 1 005 found to be positive and destroyed.

Cooper remembers the first year as a time of trial and error.

“We didn’t know it was possible to process herds like this and, quite honestly, in the beginning it was chaos. We were working behind flimsy structures, sometimes just curtains. It was incredibly stressful. We had a lot of capture mortalities associated with stress and overexertion. It wasn’t pleasant and we really questioned if we were doing the right thing. It was in 2000 that we actually just stopped and re-evaluated the whole system, and realised this was the only way to go. Since we’ve initiated the steel structure and refined our handling techniques, things have just gone better and better every year.”

No effort was spared to make this the most effective buffalo capture operation of its kind in the country. Even the red oxide paint used on the structure is said to have a calming effect on the stressed animals.

PhD student Claire Geoghegan, from the Mammal Research Institute at the Department of Zoology and Entomology in the University of Pretoria, has been studying bovine TB in and around the park for the last three years. Currently leading a South African research programme to quantify the prevalence of bTB in poverty-stricken areas, she describes a familiar scenario.

“bTB is not originally from sub-Saharan Africa,” she says. “Current thought is that it might have originated in North Africa or in Europe and came to sub-Saharan Africa through livestock brought in by settlers in the early 1800s, so species here haven’t evolved to combat the disease.”

She speaks with great respect about this disease, which is said to be 40 000 years old. “As it evolves it loses bits of DNA to adapt to its host, hence the various strains.”

According to Geoghegan, bovine TB shares 99,9% of its DNA sequences with the organism that causes TB in humans. It therefore not only poses a health risk to the wildlife in the park but also to thousands of people and their livestock living on the perimeter of the park.

According to Cooper, spillover infection of bTB has been recorded in a range of other species in South Africa, including lion (Panthera leo), cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus), greater kudu (Tragelaphus strepsiceros), warthog (Phacocoerus aethiopicus), and leopard (Panthera pardus).

As one of the four preferred prey species of lion, buffalo with TB can contaminate predators in the park.

“When the programme started we were seeing a lot of sick lions and almost 100% of those lions were infected with TB — up to a dozen a year. Our most recent case was the first one diagnosed in a period of two years,” said Cooper.

Next, each animal gets a penicillin injection to prevent infection due to stress, the physical condition is assessed and meticulously recorded and, to identify the animal in future, it is branded.

Since the swelling on the neck is only visible after 72 hours, the buffalo are ushered back into the boma until a reading can be done. Identifying the TB-positive animals, among which are cows with calves, poses a moral dilemma. The TB-positive animals are culled, but releasing the young calves to become easy prey for predators is not acceptable, hence, in 2003 the Hluhluwe iMfolozi Buffalo Project started.

Orphaned calves of three months and younger are removed and introduced to jersey cows, who become their surrogate mothers. Over a period of a year and a half they undergo five TB tests and are finally sold as TB-free buffalo in a herd that forms a functional social group.

Although impeccably professional, there is an underlying tone of sadness among the team on judgment day. Today it’s Alicia McCall’s job to record the readings and to mark the TB positive animals.

“Sorry bully”, her voice is soft as she gently pats a big bull on the flank. Snoring deeply, he is unaware that he has just been “doomed”.

In contrast, releasing the TB-negative animals is the highlight of the process, but doesn’t always go as smoothly as planned. This particular day, one animal is left behind, with not enough strength to grab the freedom offered. Lying on its side it is barely able to muster a breath. Cooper prepares an injection to revive it. Buckets of water drench the stressed animal and everyone holds their breath, hoping. To offer some relief from the heat, branches are cut for shade. It seems futile.

A distressed volunteer sidles up to the corner of the boma for a “woman to woman” chat. “Come on girl, you can do it,” she urges.

Minutes go past, then, with an indignant snort and a toss of its head, the revived buffalo gets up and, among cheering, it is gone.

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