How to test an elephant for TB (South Africa)


Amanda Watson, The Citizen

Date Published

See link for photo.

Dart it – and hope it falls asleep like the big guy above, so fluid samples can be taken from its lungs.

The hunt to determine exactly how many elephants in the Kruger National Park (KNP) are infected with a human strain of tuberculosis continued yesterday – with the star of the show falling asleep on its feet.

With its knees, hips and shoulders locked, the large bull elephant froze in position, despite being darted with a powerful sedative by Peter Buss, senior manager of KNP veterinary services.

It stayed there despite a KNP chopper battering it with a downward blast of air and its back knees only folded once rangers began moving in with a rope to haul it down.

Once it had completely given up the fight against gravity and lay snoring through its trunk, rangers were able to cover its eyes from the sun with its massive ears and prop a stick into the end of the trunk to make breathing easier for the animal.

Yesterday’s darting brought the number of elephant tested for TB so far to 36 since it was discovered in an elephant that had died of old age in 2016.

“We don’t usually think about human TB getting into animals but, in fact, it does – like this case with the elephant,” said Stellenbosch University Professor Michelle Miller.

Once about 70 elephant had been sampled and the results were in, the next step could begin.

“We’re about to start an active surveillance programme to search intensively for the disease,” said Miller.

Screening of the elephants would begin in the southern part of Kruger, said Miller, because this was where most visitors to the park congregated.

It’s an uncomfortable process for the elephant. It’s driven by helicopter to a safe open place for it to fall – and staff to work without being eaten or gored by something wild – before having a pipe pushed down its throat so water can be introduced into its lungs.

Miller said blood tests only revealed the reaction of the elephants system to the presence of TB in its lungs, while the liquid recovered from the elephant – no more than about 30cc – would reveal the actual bacteria, from which its strain would be determined.

No new cases had been discovered since testing began but with more than 12 000 of the large herbivores in the park spread out over two million square kilometres, it’s not going to be an easy task.