Managing The African Buffalo

Ron Thomson

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Managing the African Buffalo

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The African or Cape buffalo is the only proven carrier of the notorious foot-and-mouth disease. In many areas it is also a carrier of corridor fever (Theileriosis).

The buffalo is susceptible to bovine tuberculosis and brucellosis (contagious abortion), too, and to several other common animal diseases. In this respect infected buffaloes, like similarly infected animals of other species, transmit these diseases to the other wild (and domesticated) animals that share their habitats.

Government veterinarians, therefore, give very careful attention to the management of wild buffalo populations. It is their primary job to protect their countries’ national domestic-stock herds which represent a continent-wide, and vitally important to Africa, multi-trillion-dollar beef industry.

Foot-and-mouth disease
The fact that the buffalo is a “carrier” of foot-and-mouth disease is the most problematical issue because once outbreaks of this disease occur in a country’s cattle herds all international beef exports are immediately stopped.

U]Carrier status[/u]: True carrier status implies that the animal species in question “carries” a disease organism in its body, all the time, but does not show any symptoms. Neither does it transmit the disease to other animal species during sometimes many years of dormancy. When the environmental conditions are right, however, the disease awakens and the virulent seeds of its propagation spread from the carriers to individuals of other cloven-hoofed animal species.

In the case of buffalo and foot-and-mouth disease, the first signs of an imminent outbreak of the disease is an increase in salivation beyond what is normal. So, when the disease becomes virulent the buffaloes, throughout their daily travels, leave behind them continuous dribbles of infected saliva. The greatest concentration of infected saliva is found at the waterholes where all animals congregate to drink. Once an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease has started it runs rife through all the populations of every cloven-hoofed animal species with which it comes into contact. This includes domesticated cattle, sheep, goats and pigs.

Foot-and-mouth disease causes severe ulceration of the mouth and tongue making it difficult for infected animals to eat. It also causes the sloughing off of the infected animals’ hooves, making it impossible for them to walk. Most animals that show these symptoms die a terrible and painful death that is stretched out over many weeks.

When an “outbreak” of foot-and-mouth disease occurs, many unhealthy buffaloes exhibit symptoms of the disease, too, and they die. Carrier species, however, generally have a greater immunity to the disease that they are carrying, than do other species, so they are not so badly affected during an outbreak.

Once an outbreak takes hold every infected animal, of whatever species, distributes the disease organisms throughout its home range. Foot and mouth disease is highly contagious. It spreads like wildfire if it is not quickly contained. In First World countries veterinary measures to contain the disease include the total destruction of every cloven-hoofed animal within the areas known to be contaminated. In Africa the infected areas are normally cordoned off and the disease is thus restricted – until it runs its course and re-enters a new dormant phase.

Corridor fever
The Cape Buffalo is the carrier of another important disease in Africa - Corridor Fever (Theileriosis) – which is immediately fatal to cattle.

I was once dispatched to kill a small number of buffalo on a cattle ranch near Wankie colliery (in Rhodesia now Zimbabwe, c. 1962). Upon my arrival I was taken to inspect a herd of about twenty fat cattle that, the rancher said, were showing early signs of being infected. They were confined within a small kraal (corral) so I was able to examine them minutely. I could detect no signs at all of their suspected illness. The next morning, however, three-quarters of them were dead.

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Corridor fever is spread by the ubiquitous brown ear tick. The tick feeds off the blood of an infected carrier buffalo. It then falls off the buffalo and, later, finds a new host – which, on a cattle ranch, is likely to be a cow. When it bites into the cow’s blood stream it transmits the disease organism. The progress of the disease is then very rapid. Once corridor fever takes hold on a cattle ranch, therefore, its effects are normally financially catastrophic for the rancher.

Disease Management - General.
Disease control, therefore, is (or should be) a major consideration in the management of all buffalo herds in African countries – even within the national parks – because no African country can afford the threat that unmanaged buffalo herds continuously pose to their domestic cattle industries.

Wild Cape Buffalo are not born “carriers” of any disease. During the first month (and more) of their existence they are completely free of disease – obtaining their immunity from anti-bodies in their mother’s milk. It is only when the calves start grazing – and so become less dependent on their mother’s milk - that they are infected by whatever diseases their parental populations are carrying.

A collaborative experiment conducted by the Rhodesian National Parks and Veterinary Departments in the 1970s showed that when unweaned buffalo calves are captured and reared in isolation of wild buffaloes, disease-free adults can be obtained. This suggests that, if there are no other wild carriers of foot-and-mouth disease, or of corridor fever, both these diseases can be wiped out.

The benefits to Africa of eliminating these diseases would be huge. But the logistics of achieving that desirable state of affairs are enormous.

Many hundreds of month-old buffalo calves would have to be captured and reared, and bred, in isolation of wild herds. Such an operation is possible – but it would have to extend over many, many years to be successful. The fact that most buffalo calves are normally born in one month (February/March) in central Africa, however, makes such an operation a feasible proposition.

The next part of the plan would be to eliminate every single buffalo in entire wild populations. This would, ideally, be done on a sanctuary by sanctuary basis - one at a time. And when it was absolutely certain that not one single wild individual remained alive, each of the game reserves which had been so prepared, would then be restocked with captive-reared disease-free buffalo. The disease-free buffalo population introduced to each cleansed game reserve would then be specifically managed for maximum production and the progeny of these buffaloes could then be used to restock other game reserves that had also been so cleansed.

It was a plan that was workable – and in the mid-1970s it was initiated. The buffalo herds in the private game reserves of Rhodesia’s Sabi Valley were eliminated – as were the buffalo in the Matopos National Park. But it was never followed through. The Rhodesian Bush War escalated during the 1970s and, in April of 1980, Rhodesia became Zimbabwe. Since then nothing more has been done to further this important buffalo management experiment.

South Africa
In South Africa – where the private game ranching and hunting industry has been expanding at a tremendous rate for many years - there were originally only three sources of buffalo from which the game ranchers tried, for many years, to obtain breeding stock. The Kruger National Park buffalo carry both foot-and-mouth disease AND corridor fever, so stocking the game ranches from this source was disallowed. The buffalo in the Kwa-Zulu Natal game reserves were carriers of corridor fever. They, too, were out-of-bounds. But the small buffalo population in Addo National Park, near Port Elizabeth, was naturally free of both diseases.

Addo buffalo, therefore, became in great demand from the game ranching industry – and many newly created national parks requested breeding stock, too. The national parks were given preference. Pilanesberg National Park was one of the first of these parks to receive a good injection of breeding stock (in the early 1980s). They bred well and when the Pilanesberg population was large enough, its Addo strain of disease free buffalo were used to restock other nearby parks.

This pattern was repeated in other protected areas that had received early inoculations of Addo buffaloes.

In recent years, therefore, disease free buffalo have become more and more available to South Africa’s private wildlife industry and from an ever-increasing number of sources.

The South African hunting industry
The Cape Buffalo, with its deserved reputation as a formidable quarry under hunting pressure, is much in demand by international hunters – and they pay a premium price for hunting privileges. The prices that game ranchers are prepared pay for breeding stock at this time, therefore, is very high. A healthy young disease free and pregnant buffalo cow, for example, is currently worth some R 200 000 (c. US $ 35 000) on the South African game ranching market – and there is no shortage of people who want to buy them.

The introduction of these buffalo to the private game ranches of South Africa is still very new but the availability of more and more buffalo trophies to international hunters can only improve the viability of the country’s already very successful safari hunting industry. And these buffaloes will be managed with great care – because they are very valuable to the game ranchers that own them.

Managing wild buffalo populations
The existence of huge populations of disease carrying buffaloes in Africa’s national parks, however, remains a constant threat to the continent’s beef industries – and this cannot be ignored. Furthermore, the current management ideal of “minimal-interference” with nature in our national parks – a dubious concept that is promoted by the self-styled “animal lovers” of the international animal rights brigade - enhances this very dangerous state of affairs. The national park authorities themselves are just as much to blame.

The minimal interference concept of population management – in ANY species of wild animal – relies on the “negative feedback” mechanisms that operate in nature to regulate births and deaths and, thereby, to control population numbers in a so-called “natural” way. This, in reality, means that during the dry-seasonal bottleneck period of each year – when the availability of food and water becomes restricted – the sometimes huge buffalo herds of Africa’s national parks suffer the consequences of mass starvation. Large numbers of the older animals die – “naturally” – and huge numbers of the young-of-year calves succumb - “naturally” – because their mother’s, lacking appropriate nutrition, are unable to produce milk when no other food is available to the (by then) recently weaned calves. And this state of affairs is greatly exacerbated during years of serious drought.

Every thinking person in the world knows that - and understands why - in human populations, the greatest disease problems exist, fester, and spread the most, in city slum areas where water, food and shelter are deficient. Things are no different in the wild! In the case of buffalo living in a national park under a management regime that supports the concept of “minimal interference” with nature, slum-type habitat conditions develop through – and intensify at the end of - the six-month’s long dry season every year. This results in several long months each year – even when the rains have been good - when water, food and shelter resources for the excessive buffalo herds are grossly deficient. This is when the diseases that affect buffalo manifest themselves. This is when foot-and-mouth disease, corridor fever, bovine TB, brucellosis, and many other diseases, erupt – because the buffaloes’ resistance to these diseases is then at its lowest ebb. These understandable common-sense realities represent the greatest challenge to the arguments of those who advocate minimal-interference management practices in our national parks.

Buffalo populations that are maintained, through judicious population reduction management, in numbers that the habitats can sustainably support all year round, on the other hand, are less susceptible to disease because they are always reasonably fat and healthy. They do not lack good water, good food and adequate shelter - even at the height of the annual dry seasons. And those that are carriers of foot-and-mouth disease are less likely to transmit this disease – or any of the several other diseases that infect buffalo - when they are in good condition.

There is, therefore, much still to do with respect to buffalo management in Africa – but there are some very good options that need to be properly investigated. The most important option at this time is for national park administrations to move away from management practices associated with the concept of minimal interference with nature. As long as they remain loyal to this archaic ideal the buffalo will remain a constant threat to the continent’s vital beef industries. This will maintain many buffalo populations, especially the smaller ones, in a state of jeopardy because the livestock industries of Africa will be forever be crying for their extermination.
 
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