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S. Africa Lions Facing Threat of TB

October 21, 1998

LOWER SABIE, South Africa (AP) _ Southern Africa’s majestic lions are facing perhaps their biggest threat since man began hunting them with rifles _ deadly tuberculosis that is reducing them to ``a skeleton covered in skin.″

Lions in Kruger National Park, one of the world’s largest game reserves, have picked up the fatal disease after feeding on infected Cape buffalo, their natural prey.

Researchers say that more than 90 percent of the lions tested in the southern part of the vast park are infected with the disease. It is suspected of cutting the number of adult lions in one study area from 25 to 12 in less than 2 1/2 years.

Conservation and wildlife officials normally allow nature’s ways to proceed unchecked in the park. But they are so fearful of the disease infecting all of Kruger’s 1,500 to 2,000 lions that they are considering slaughtering 8,000 Cape buffalo or building a fence across the park to contain the diseased animals.

``We cannot allow this disease to spread,″ declared Emily Mogajane, the director of animal health for South Africa’s Agriculture Ministry.

Before making a decision, scientists are scrambling to determine how widespread the TB is. This week, they descended on the sultry stillness of an isolated section of the park.

Scientists aboard a helicopter swooped into a shallow valley where a herd of buffalo grazed in the shade of thorn trees. A scientist aimed a rifle at one of the behemoths and fired an orange dart into its flank. The buffalo dropped. Another dart was fired. Another buffalo dropped.

Minutes later, 19 buffalo were dead or dying from lethal doses of muscle relaxant.

Thirty scientists and helpers descended from a convoy of all-terrain vehicles and dissected the animals on the spot. About 40 vultures floated overhead, but pickings were slim _ the carcasses and body parts were loaded onto trucks and taken away for study.

Skin tests can detect the presence of TB without killing the animal. But only an autopsy can reveal how far the disease has spread and how long the animal has been sick.

That evening, Dewald Keet, Kruger’s chief veterinarian and one of the lion study’s two authors, displayed a buffalo’s lung to a reporter. The pink membrane contained white tubercular lumps.

``If a lion eats this, he will get a massive dose of TB,″ Keet said.

Because the disease is ingested, the lion’s intestines are the first to be affected. The lion will develop intestinal lesions before the disease spreads to lymph nodes and other organs. Unlike the buffalo, which get TB from breathing the germs, the lion’s lungs are not immediately affected.

A lion who contracts TB will take several years to die from the disease itself, but its weakened condition makes it an easier target for rival lions.

TB is alien to the 100-year-old park. Cape buffalo contracted it by mingling with infected cattle herds in the 1950s near southern Kruger, before the park’s boundary was fenced off.

Although the spread of the disease has been slow among buffalo, many of those affected can live out a normal lifespan.

Not so for the lion. The disease seems to hit lions more quickly and with more devastating effects.

Keet discovered the first infected lion in September 1995.

``The lion was on its last legs, a skeleton covered in skin, due to the TB,″ Keet said. He has discovered at least eight fatally ill lions since then.

Authorities say the disease has hit other species, although many appear to be little affected.

In August, TB in leopards was discovered after one of the cats, perhaps too weak from the disease to hunt other prey, sneaked up on a ranger and killed him.

The disease has also hit lions in two other game parks, including one in Uganda, adding urgency to finding a solution.

``They’re not dying like flies,″ Keet said. ``TB is a slow, insidious, dangerous disease. (But) by the time you realize there is a problem, it can be too late.″

It is probably hitting many more African game reserves, but few studies have been done because of lack of money, said Leo Braack, chief of conservation at Kruger.

``Hopefully the insight we gain can benefit a whole range of countries,″ Braack said.

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