Many of you have been wondering how and why so many lions are infected with TB in the Greater Kruger National park. AKA the Sabi Sands game reserve. TB was most likely introduced into the KNP on the southern Boundary of the Kruger following intermingling between Buffalo and infected cattle in the 1960s and 1980s but remained undetected until the 1990s when it was found in a young Buffalo bull.

What is TB:
Tuberculosis (TB) is a disease affecting cattle and a variety of wildlife worldwide. It is caused by a bacteria (Mycobacterium bovis) that gains access to the body via the respiratory or alimentary tracts or through the skin. 

Over the past couple of years in the Northern block of the Sabi Sands which consists of 2 well known prides, the Nkuhumas, controlled by the 2 Dominant males known as the Avoca brothers , the Talamati pride controlled by the Other Avoca brother, and then taken over by the S8/ Imbali male.

2 of these well known males died at the hands of this disease.

Here I will discuss my theory as to why the Male (S8/Imbali) perished quicker than Blondie the Avoca male.

Firstly, how do lions contract TB.

Buffalo carcasses are the most likely sources of infection in carnivores, particularly lions, which are infected via the gut when feeding on infected carcasses. In the KNP buffaloes constitute about 4% of lion’s total food although this figure may be higher in the Sabi Sands. Once infected a lion can shed the virus in aerosols and infect other members in the pride due to their highly social nature. Infected lions may show signs of progressive weight loss, poor healing skin wounds, joint swellings, muscle loss and eye lesions. 

What I have learnt during my time in the bush while observing these cats and why I think male lions are more susceptible to this disease than the females.

Hunting Buffalo, which are the main host carrier’s of the Bovine TB Disease in the region, and a preferred prey species for the Nkuhuma and Talamati prides.

With prides consisting of 3 dominant females in the Nkuhuma pride at the time, and the Talamati pride consisting of one dominant female and sub adults.

The majority of the hunt will be done by the females of the pride, thereafter the will need the weight of the males, especially when lacking numbers in there favour to take down a animal weighing in at around 900 plus KG.

The main source responsible for TB is through aerosol droplets, and the reason I say this is because when lions kill Buffalo, the male lion due to size and strength will muzzle the Buffalo, meaning he will bite the animal around the snout and mouth, so that the Buffalo has no chance of calling in reinforcements.

And through the breathing of the buffalo the lion will contract the disease via aerosol droplets, hence more males will contract the disease than females. Even though the kill bite is around the neck of the animal, which is done by either the females or the males of the pride.

Now we take the Avoca male ( Blondie ) that died from TB, his condition deteriorated over a longer period than that of the S8 male.

Yes TB can take anything from 2 to 5 years to show in the animals condition, hence Blondie only showed signs of the disease much later, due to the fact the he had his pride and brother looking after him and had loads of food to consume during this period, until the TB finally got hold of him and he sadly passed away.

In the case with the S8/Imbali male, things were totally different.

Events leading up to his death, sighting reports that I was in, we viewed him as a healthy male, but other factors that I witnessed in his deterioration was due to the fact that he was unfortunately involved in a fight with another male leaving him with some visible wounds leading up to the day he finally met his maker.

This could have been the cause for his disease to show much quicker than the norm. When animals show weakness , tick population increases, malnutrition sets in, the ability to keep up with the rest of the pride and feed and the lack of water could all be factors in the speeding up of the TB in his system. Another contributing factor could be immune deficiency diseases (eg: Feline AIDS)  All these factors combined could be the answer as to why he died way quicker than the Aovca male.

Due to the complex social structure amongst lions, the illness and death of the leading members of the pride can have devastating consequences for the other members. TB has an impact beyond just the infected lions.

With most of the prides in the Sabi Sands being protected by a coalition of two or more males (usually related), the death of these individuals can mean upheaval and death for the remaining members as new males take over, typically killing the cubs.

The shortened tenure of the males in charge of the pride will mean that only a couple of generations of cubs will be unaffected by changes at the top. In studies, it has been shown that the prides in the northern regions, with longer tenures, have more time to raise young.

Lions are apex predators which determine the balance of species and therefore impact biodiversity in an ecosystem.

Increased awareness of TB in wildlife is the first step in addressing the ecological, conservation, socioeconomic and public health issues associated with this disease. Since BTB affects a wide diversity of species, including domestic animals, wildlife, and humans, research is crucial to understanding the prevalence and risk factors associated with intra- and interspecies transmission.

Regards Deon Wessels
Chitwa Chitwa