TB epidemic ravages South Africa's lions

Big cats are said to be 'dying like flies' - but the authorities are at odds over how to tackle the crisis, reports Mary Braid
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KRUGER National Park, South Africa's largest and most prestigious game reserve, is denying that its entire lion population may die following the discovery that bovine tuberculosis (TB) has spilled over from buffaloes into the big cats.

Recently Dr Johan Krige, deputy director of the country's department of agriculture, claimed lions "are dying like flies" in the southern stretches of the vast reserve, sending shivers through the tourism industry and dismaying the conservation world. It has also been suggested that bovine TB has spilled into rare species such as the white rhino, threatening them with extinction, and that even some humans might be at risk.

These claims have been dismissed as "hysteria" by a Kruger park scientist, Dr Leo Braack, and other naturalists. But Dr Braack admits that the 2,000- strong lion population appears to be dwindling in those areas of the 12,000 square mile park where bovine TB was endemic in buffaloes, and that lions tested positively for TB. He also said lions appeared to die far more quickly from the disease than buffaloes.

As the scientist spoke, park rangers in helicopters had already begun a cull of 600 buffalo in an attempt to assess the extent of TB infection. Lions were also being darted and tested, after an earlier sampling found about 90 per cent of them TB-positive.

But Dr Braack emphasised that the dart tests showed only that the lions have come into contact with the disease, not that they are dying from it. Like buffaloes, lions must undergo post-mortem tissue tests for proof that the TB is life-threatening, but there are 10 times more buffaloes than lions. "The situation does not merit killing lions ," he said in exasperation, adding that over-reaction was putting unreasonable pressure on the park to "go in shooting".

Others say complacency is part of the problem. Professor Nic Kriek, of Pretoria University's veterinary department, warned that time was running out, and South African newspaper reports claim that Kruger park authorities may soon have to kill all infected animals to stamp out the disease.

The Kruger park, a major reservoir of rare and threatened species, now faces bans on transferring animals to other reserves both in South Africa and abroad, with a disastrous impact on its own revenues and on world- wide conservation efforts.

Experts appear to agree that bovine TB presents almost no risk to tourists. The government's main concern is that its national cattle herd will be infected by bovine TB, precipitating an international ban on South African meat and dairy products similar to that imposed on Britain after the "mad cow" debacle. The Kruger park's buffaloes were originally infected by domestic cattle in the 1950s and 1960s. While the domestic herd has been cleansed, the government is worried that the disease is now so rampant in wild buffaloes that the infection may boomerang. Such fears led to new fencing around the park last year.

Nor is the crisis is confined to the Kruger reserve. The famous Hluhluwe- Umfolozi game reserve in KwaZulu Natal admitted two months ago that its lions were infected with TB. Even tourists had complained that the big cats looked unwell, but vets believed that inbreeding was to blame until a chance test for TB revealed a grimmer picture.

The lions are believed to have become infected by eating contaminated buffaloes, although TB has also been found in kudus, baboons, cheetahs and leopards. Concern about overspill infections into other species has grown since it was revealed that the leopard which killed a Kruger park ranger in a rare recent attack had been infected with TB. The leopard is believed to have attacked in desperation because it was too weak to hunt.

Sharing grazing-land or water, as well as eating infected flesh, can spread the disease. Kruger park officials are trying to establish a TB- free buffalo herd, believing that this would help to stamp the disease out among other species which prey on them.

"The situation is serious, but it is hard to gauge just how serious, because there is just too little data," said Dr Bruce Davidson, director of the South African Wildlife and Environment Society. No one could predict how many lions might die before they build resistance to what, for them, is a new disease.