With 500 elephants came a battalion of tsetse flies and other diseases in Malawi

In what was considered one of the largest and most significant elephant translocations in human history, African Parks moved over 500 elephants to a new home in Malawi in 2017. The hope was that the transplanted pachyderms will help solve conservation problems in both their original homes and their new locale, and while translocation may successfully do that in the long run, it has also brought about a new challenge, a myriad of tsetse fly.

Wildlife managers in Malawi in July finished a two-year project that involved moving 520 elephants from Liwonde National Park and Majete Wildlife Reserve to their new home in Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve.

The relocation of hundreds of elephants to Malawi’s largest wildlife reserve was meant to be a sign of hope until Malawian’s who reside close to the reserve began experiencing constant headaches, weakness and pain — symptoms of trypanosomes, tiny parasites spread by the bite of the tsetse fly.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), Human African trypanosomiasis, also known as sleeping sickness, is a vector-borne parasitic disease. It is caused by infection with protozoan parasites belonging to the genus Trypanosoma. They are transmitted to humans by tsetse fly (Glossina genus) bites which have acquired their infection from human beings or from animals harbouring human pathogenic parasites.

Sleeping sickness is notoriously difficult to treat with drugs and one tsetse can actually infect a lot of people at once. The local hospital said it did not have a number of sleeping sickness cases. One community resident, Group Village Ngondo, recalled at least five deaths from the disease.

Just like the Remora and the Shark’s symbiotic relationship, tsetse flies are a companion of the elephants; sadly trypanosomiasis is the result of the unusual relationship between the flies and the elephants. Since 2015, there has been a surge in the large biting flies that inhabit much of tropical Africa, however, its skyrocketing numbers in Malawi was as a result of the elephant’s reintroduction.

Previously, Nkhotakota once had more than 1,500 elephants but due to poaching fewer than 100 remained when we assumed management of the reserve. However, thanks to the historic 500 Elephant translocation, this once near-empty forest is alive with the sounds of a growing elephant herd.

In 1998, almost 40,000 cases of sleeping sickness were reported, but estimates were that 300,000 cases were undiagnosed and therefore untreated. During the most recent epidemic, the prevalence reached 50 percent in several villages in Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and South Sudan. Sleeping sickness was the first or second greatest cause of mortality in those communities, even ahead of HIV/AIDS.

After continued control efforts, in 2009, the number of cases reported dropped below 10,000 for the first time in 50 years. This decline in the number of cases has continued with 997 new cases reported in 2018, the lowest level since the start of systematic global data-collection 80 years ago. Currently, the estimated population at risk is 65 million people.

According to the African Parks field operations manager for the reserve, David Robertson, the tsetse flies are something the parks workers need to manage differently. “We don’t want to have neighbouring communities or tourists to the park having an unpleasant experience or dangerous experience though contact with tsetse flies so we will do our best to manage that in the future.”