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Kruger Park elephant that died of human TB still a puzzle for vets

An elephant died from human TB at the Kruger Park in 2016
An elephant died from human TB at the Kruger Park in 2016
Image: Reuben Goldberg

Scientists working with SanParks have begun an intensive research project after an elephant died of human tuberculosis at the Kruger National Park.

In 2016, an elephant died at the Kruger National Park next to the road and vets moved quickly to investigate as the scene was unusual. When they got to the carcass, the vets found that the elephant had died thin. The first call was to check its teeth as this is the first point to verify an illness but its teeth were okay.

It was then clear to the vets that the elephant had died of some chronic illness and a postmortem was immediately done.

“We found that the lungs were very badly affected. About 80% of its lungs were not functional. We took the necessary samples and took them to various laboratories. When the results came back, they confirmed that it was TB - but not bovine but human TB,” said Dr Peter Buss, head of veterinary services at SanParks.

Since then, Buss and a team of experts have taken samples from over 30 elephants trying to establish if there are other elephants that could have the human TB.

On Monday, an elephant was darted with drugs at the Skukuza part of the park in Mpumalanga in order to take samples for lab testing as part of this research.

“At this stage it is only one case. It is very difficult for us to predict what may or may not happen…Although we are looking for other cases, so far the evidence is suggesting that it is only one case. But we have to keep looking because we really don’t have the numbers to compare with statistical evidence," said Buss.

Buss said there were many diseases among animals in the park, including foot and mouth, African swine fever and others, which did not impact the wildlife.

“TB is a new disease in Africa. We don’t know how the animals will react to it. Elephant populations are now fragmented, therefore, much more vulnerable to these kinds of disease. That is why it is important for us to get a feel as to what impact will the disease have on our population,” Buss said.

The current population of elephants at the Kruger National Park is about 20,000.

Buss and Stellenbosch University professor Michele Miller conducted a procedure called bronchoalveolar lavage which is used to wash the lungs. A fluid is put into the lungs through a tube which has a camera and it gets mixed up with fluids in the elephant’s lungs. The researchers then take the drained substance to the labs for testing.

“We have not yet found another elephant that died of human TB in Kruger National Park. It is total speculation as to how this elephant may have got exposed. Obviously the disease is spread through people coughing up the organism at very close contact. That would not have happened between a human and an elephant.

"The one way it could have happened is through a person who was eating food that got dropped or thrown away and the elephant got it,” Buss said. 

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