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KNP gives wings to zoonotic testing in elephants

Boikhutso Ntsoko of Eyewitness News looks at Kruger National Park’s struggle to combat zoonotic diseases to bring us these images.

JOHANNESBURG – It is just past 7am on a Tuesday morning and Kruger National Park veterinarian and senior superintendent Peter Buss is already high in a helicopter as a ground crew led by the head of research on animal tuberculosis, Professor Michelle Miller, tries to immobilize an elephant.

It’s part of Kruger National Park’s efforts to curb the spread of zoonotic diseases after an elephant died of human tuberculosis in 2016 in the park.

That morning, they managed to tranquilize a teenage bull after he fell asleep. The team wasted no time as they set up their equipment to begin testing.

“Basically what we’re doing here is restraining the elephant so we can take some samples to test for TB. We would then collect some blood samples for Professor Miller so that she could also carry out some tests. Then we also collect samples for our biobanks to store them for later use,” Buss explained.

The research has grown significantly as the team aims to immobilize more and more elephants, with a total of 40 already tested. Tests were also carried out on different species, including rhinos, lions and buffaloes.

Unfortunately for the team, there’s a bit of a challenge when you consider that treating TB in a human requires monitored daily doses of drugs and that can’t be given to a free-roaming wild animal.

But according to Miller, the research was not implemented in vain.

“We have discovered a few other cases because we are looking. We didn’t find any other animals that died or had TB other than the one from 2016. But we did find a few cases of the bovine TB strain and that wasn’t causing too much of a problem. So far it appears that between 6% and 9% of the elephants we have tested have been infected,” Miller explained.

With the team’s biggest challenge being funding, they also have to be careful not to infect themselves when carrying out the tests. They don’t give a specific cost to immobilize an animal, but it does include piloting the helicopter, a team of about 10-12 people, ground travel for rangers, a search party, and extraction equipment.

Once an elephant has been restrained and properly tested, with samples taken, they are then woken up and allowed to continue their day.

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