Disney Expertise for Sanparks Veterinary Wildlife Services

By Michele Hofmeyr
Scientific Services, Skukuza

Disney is not just about Mickey Mouse. There is considerably more to this multi-national corporation than meets the eye, especially when it comes to support for conservation and research issues around the world.

Specialist veterinarian, Dr Michelle Miller from the Disney Animal Kingdom in Orlando, Florida, USA, was recently in the Kruger National Park to work in collaboration with Dr Peter Buss, Dr Danny Govender, Dr Lin-Mari de Klerk-Lorist, Jenny Joubert, Khosi Maseko and Antonia Bezuidenhout, all from Veterinary Wildlife Services, on a new diagnostic test for tuberculosis (TB) in white rhinos, as there is currently no feasible diagnostic test available in South Africa.

As part of a registered research project with the Veterinary Wildlife Services of Sanparks, based in Skukuza, the work aimed at checking to see if the tests that have been developed for detecting TB in white rhinos in USA American zoo’s and animal parks can be used here.

Project co-ordinator, Dr Peter Buss explained that the TB test is an “animal side” test, which means that blood can be taken from the animal, in this case a white rhino, while it is immobilised and tested immediately. “The advantage of such a “rapid” test is that you don’t have a delay in getting the results and the TB status of an animal is known at the time of capture” says Dr Buss.

The Africa Research Consortium (ARC), consisting of a number of zoos in the USA, has raised funds to build accommodation and provide the salary for a veterinary technologist position based at Skukuza, Kruger National Park. The transfer of these funds to Sanparks from the USA has been generously managed by the International Wildlife Health Institute based in the USA.

The aim of the veterinary technologist position, currently held by Khosi Maseko, is to facilitate collaborative research by employing a person, skilled in collecting, processing and packaging biological and other types of samples for use by local and visiting researchers. As part of the collaborative agreement with ARC, Dr Miller and Liz Hedrick, specialist veterinary technologist from Disney’s Animal Kingdom, spent time training Khosi in various laboratory techniques.

Using blood samples collected from white rhinos captured during 2007 and some previously banked samples, the group were able to apply the TB test to 100 samples. In addition, the blood samples were tested for the levels of certain enzymes, minerals and proteins.

Complete and differential counts of red and white blood cells for each animal were also determined. Blood samples will be sent to the Onderstepoort Veterinary Institute for further testing to find out if the rhinos had been exposed to various other diseases.

“The tests focused on determining the normal values for white rhinos” explained Dr Buss. “If we have an idea of what the blood chemistry values are for a healthy rhino we can then verify if an animal is ill or not, and in sick individuals often establish the cause”. Further follow-up research is planned for next year, before any conclusions can be made about the research to date.



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