NEW RESEARCH IN CHEETAH TB TESTING
Wild Tomorrow Fund is delighted to support Oregon State University veterinary medicine student, Elin Crockett, and her research project that aims to develop an effective and practical test for TB in cheetah. Elin began her project this summer at AndBeyond's Phinda Private Game Reserve. Read more about why this research is important for the future of cheetah in South Africa in our latest story.
Two years ago, several lions were scheduled to be translocated out of South Africa from Wild Tomorrow Fund’s partner, AndBeyond’s Phinda Private Game Reserve. A variety of tests are required to move animals between borders, including a test for bovine tuberculosis (TB). The tests came out positive, and upon closer examination, veterinarians confirmed Mycobacterium bovis infection, the bacteria responsible for bovine TB.
Management of TB in wildlife is extremely difficult for multiple reasons. It is a long-lasting infection that oftentimes causes few symptoms, so animals can be contagious and shedding the bacteria for months or years without showing obvious signs. It can infect many different species and even has zoonotic potential, meaning that it poses a threat to humans in contact with tuberculosis infected animals. It’s ability to jump between species (including humans and livestock) creates the biggest obstacle around TB management: it threatens the integrity of our food supply and the economics of local farmers, so governments tend to take a tuberculosis diagnosis very seriously. A TB diagnosis is an unfortunate event for any animal, including the lions intended for translocation. But the larger outcome of their infection was that Phinda was put under an indefinite quarantine, making it extremely difficult to move any wildlife outside of the reserve.
Translocation of animals is a critical management tool in South Africa. Because the landscape has been fenced into a mosaic of wild spaces, farmlands, native communities, and urban areas, movement of animals is necessary to mimic the genetic mixing that would naturally happen in large, unhampered wilderness areas. Without the ability to move animals, Phinda and other reserves with known tuberculosis infections are losing an important means of conserving Africa’s endangered species.
One such species that relies on translocations between reserves is the cheetah, an iconic carnivore that has been IUCN Red Listed as vulnerable. Habitat destruction and fragmentation have caused a decline in cheetah numbers across their historic range, resulting in a metapopulation structure: instead of being managed as one connected population, cheetah must be managed in multiple distinct subpopulations, requiring translocations to maintain genetic integrity. Important breeding subpopulations, like those at Phinda and neighboring Manyoni Private Game Reserve, are critical for the perseverance of the species. However, with the introduction of tuberculosis and resulting quarantine, these important reserves are unable to move cheetah between subpopulations because there is currently no validated test for TB in cheetah. Without an effective and practical diagnostic test, managers risk losing a valuable foothold in their ability to conserve the species.
“My current project is mostly focused on something called an antigen stimulation test. I’ll collect blood from cheetahs while they are immobilized, then process the samples in my makeshift lab at home. The test will hopefully be able to give us insight into whether or not an animal’s immune system has been sensitized to the tuberculosis pathogen.”
Elin will be participating in cheetah captures at involved reserves in Kwa-Zulu-Natal during her time in South Africa. She will collect blood samples to perform a variety of tests, including the antigen stimulation test, in addition to coordinating with the state veterinarian to perform a pre-existing tuberculin skin test that is validated in lions.
Without an adequate test that determines if a cheetah has been exposed to tuberculosis, they cannot be moved from a quarantined reserve--even if there is little evidence of infection in a given animal. “Our goal is to eventually be able to confidently determine the infection status of these animals,” says Crockett. “Any step closer to an effective diagnostic procedure will bring us that much closer to easier translocations and better management of the species.”
Wild Tomorrow Fund is excited to support Elin and to be involved in such an important joint project alongside Stellenbosch University, Oregon State University, Biologists Without Borders, Phinda and Manyoni Private Game Reserves, and with the support of Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife veterinarians. The overwhelming enthusiasm from local wildlife reserves and veterinarians has confirmed our belief that this project will not only directly benefit wildlife conservation, but will also work towards furthering veterinary scientific research and allow for stronger ecological management in Southern Africa.