22 Apr 2022
One of the best known and most beautiful antelope species in Namibia is the kudu with the characteristic screwed antlers worn by the majestic bulls. The dainty female animals do not have antlers and this is why the large ears are particularly noticeable. Kudus are found almost everywhere in the country, except in desert areas.
But these antelopes are endangered due to rabies and along with it is the photo as well as trophy tourism in Namibia. Scientists have now developed a vaccine for the first time, which recently showed initial success in the test phase.
Concerned farmer associations, professional hunters and veterinarians had been looking for solutions almost several years ago. In 2015, the Namibia Agricultural Union (NAU) officially commissioned research, which was carried out by the veterinarian Dr. Rainer Hassel who is project leader. The research is funded by donations from the farmers, their associations and various companies.
Hassel, who is now a lecturer in veterinary medicine at the University of Namibia (UNAM) on the Neudamm campus, brought in scientists from the German Friedrich Loeffler Institute (FLI) and the University of Pretoria.
Around 40 wild Kudus were caught and placed in enclosures on Neudamm for testing purposes.
According to Hassel, there is a rabies-specific feature in Namibia. The Greater kudu (Tragelaphus strepsiceros) are suffering epidemics of rabies, which have been reported here since the 1970s, killing over 70,000 kudu. This epidemic lasted about nine years.
At the beginning of 2001, a second major wave of infection was detected. Even after the mass infections have subsided, many of the beautiful antelope are still dying from it.
Veterinarians and scientists have long suspected that the kudus in Namibia are not infected by another animal, but by each other. This can happen through touch and through saliva in water when the animals drink at waterholes.
"Due to the social way of life in herds and behavioural biological characteristics, it is assumed that a lateral (direct) transmission of the rabies virus among the kudus is responsible for these epidemics, reports Hassel in the FLI journal.
“Kudus are of enormous economic importance in Namibia. In addition to the valuable game, it is the entire value chain of hunting tourism that depends on it.
Since 2020, the 40 kudus on Neudamm have been given the vaccine that has now been developed as a spray in their mouths and through food intake, as the vaccine is hidden in bait. It was also injected into them beforehand.
Needless to say, injections and spraying doesn't work with wild kudu, hence the idea of hiding the vaccine in bait. The idea of distributing the vaccine in water points was dropped.
The "test" kudus have now formed antibodies in their blood. It still needs to be researched what amounts of vaccine kudus need to ingest and at what levels of antibodies the animals are making them immune to rabies.
In the recently completed third phase of the research project, Dr. Hassel reported at the end of March 2022 that the wild kudu had eaten the baits attached to the trees. The first blood tests showed an increased formation of antibodies against rabies - a great success after seven years of hard work.
“Factors such as high winds and rain also affected the bait laid out, but overall it was very successful and the distribution system was effective in attracting kudu in a natural setting. However, more targeted studies are needed to determine whether acceptable vaccine protection can be achieved," said Hassel.
With a view to researching the epidemiology of rabies, the genetic structure of the virus has been studied. It was found that the pathogen has hardly changed in the past decades. In 2015 and 2016, significantly more comparisons were made with rabies viruses from animal species such as jackal, dog, cattle and eland antelope than in previous years.
The study has not yet revealed that the rabies virus could have adapted to the kudu population. Despite the waves of infection since the 1970s, "a clear natural immunity could not be determined," says Hassel. "About 25 percent of the animals examined had anti-rabies antibodies in their blood, but only in small amounts." The kudu population in Namibia was unable to build up immunity to rabies.
It has also not yet been possible to prove conclusively that the virus is transmitted through direct contact among antelopes. This would need further investigation as many Kudus in Namibia are still dying of rabies.
However, the current focus is on developing the vaccine and how best to spread it among wild kudu to ensure this majestic antelope species returns to greater numbers in Namibia's landscapes.
Kudus are browsers and prefer dense bush. They eat leaves, but also pods, fruits and sometimes grass. The cows carry nine months and one calf is born at a time. Kudu bulls have a life expectancy of ten to twelve years.
With a shoulder height of 1.4m for male Kudus and 1.2m for females, the average weight of females is between 110-120kg and between a whopping 200-350kg for bulls.
The massive kudu are capable of leaping over two meter high fences. Another special feature of the kudu is that when it flees, it holds its tail up, the underside of which is white, so that the entire herd can follow.
Kudus occur in smaller herds, young bulls form their own bachelor groups.
From time to time a "tame" kudu will get lost in residential areas on the outskirts of Windhoek. Since Kudus are otherwise very shy and flee, the "tame" behaviour is a sign of a rabies infection. Caution is advised and people and pets such as dogs should stay away. The nature conservation authorities and the city administration react very quickly and shoot the animal in a humane way with a coup de grace, the carcass is then burned.
Author: Brigitte Weidlich
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