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Farmers panic in anthrax scare

MANTŠALI PHAKOANA

LESOTHO farmers are in a quandary following the recent outbreak of anthrax in the country which prompted the immediate export ban of wool, mohair and livestock to South Africa and other countries due to fears of spreading the disease.

On 12 May 2019, the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security (MAFS) was notified by a farmer from Ha-Tseka village that cattle were dying in large numbers.

According to Maseru District Administrator, Mpane Nthunya, officials from the MAFS and Ministry of Health went out the following day to investigate the matter, only to discover the animals were dying due to anthrax.

Nthunya explained: “A week after rumours of the anthrax disease outbreak went rife, the Maseru District Rapid Response Team finally confirmed the outbreak in Ha-Tseka (21 cattle), Ha-Au (one cow) and Ha-Teko (two cattle).

“Seventy-four people from Qeme were also reported to have been exposed to the anthrax in the form of handling the dead cattle, cooking and/or eating, while a total of 24 people exposed developed symptoms of the infection.”

Meanwhile, South Africa has since imposed a ban on the importation of live animals from Lesotho as well as livestock by-products such as wool and mohair from the Kingdom due to the anthrax outbreak.

In a statement issued on 29 May 2019, the South African Department of Agriculture said it was aware of the (anthrax) allegation but could not independently verify the outbreak in another country, and as a result, all import permits had been revoked until Lesotho implemented mitigating measures.

However, while some farmers are panicking the export ban would affect their ‘pockets’ since their wool and mohair is now stuck at the Lesotho Wool Centre in Thaba-Bosiu, others suspect the government faked the outbreak to discourage them from exporting their produce to South Africa (SA) through BKB or any other broker of their choice.

Khotsang Moshoeshoe, the chairperson of Thabang Shearing Shed in Mokhotlong district, has alleged the government faked the “so-called” anthrax outbreak to force them to sell their produce through the wool centre.

Established in 2016, the centre is a partnership between Basotho Wool and Mohair Farmers and Maseru Dawning (Pty) Ltd, a Chinese company owned by Stone Shi.

However, the relationship between the centre and the wool and mohair farmers has been bitter for a long time now, due to a number of reasons, among them late-payments by the centre to the farmers.

 “We had seen this coming. Ever since the government lost the wool and mohair regulations case, and denying us the permits thus restricting our freedom to export to brokers of our choice, it was clear that they really wanted to sabotage us,” Moshoeshoe said.

After the High Court declared the regulations null and void, the government had lodged an appeal and the Appeal Court overturned the ruling, meaning the disputed regulations remain in place.

Moshoeshoe says it is unfortunate the government cannot see that the case is now affecting both the centre and the local farmers.

“Unfortunately, the ‘so-called’ outbreak has affected us all. Now we will have to wait for South Africa to decide otherwise. After all, to be honest, even before South Africa prohibited us from exporting the wool, we were already suffering as farmers because some of us were holding on to our wool and mohair because we did not want to sell to Stone, while others risked by selling to him but have (allegedly) not been paid.

 “We all have something to lose because currently, we are shearing goats and the question is where are we going to sell it now that even those who chose to sell to the centre will have to wait until their produce can be exported?” Moshoeshoe lamented.

He continued: “There is no anthrax outbreak here. Even if the government claims to have spotted it in those reported in the areas, that is a very small area for them to declare that as an outbreak.

“A few animals within a small area can’t die from what is alleged to be anthrax and then it’s declared an outbreak. It is not fair to us as farmers.

 “We have been wool and mohair farmers for way too long now, and each farmer knows very well the signs of anthrax, hence most of us know how to treat the animals once any signs are spotted.

“We know South Africa is not part of this trick but since they were alerted about the ‘so-called outbreak’, they had to panic and of-course, take all the necessary precautions to keep themselves safe.”

Mahooana Letseka, another farmer from Qacha’s Nek, said they were concerned with South Africa’s decision as the export ban could contribute to the delay of payments for their produce sold in Thaba-Bosiu.

“We are already struggling to get payments for the previous produce, and now this Chinese man will use this as an excuse to delay payments,” Letseka said. He further said there were no reported suspected cases of anthrax in Qacha’s Nek.

“We just heard that the anthrax affected Qeme and other areas. As for us here, there is nothing suspicious. Anthrax is not new to animals; usually we would see it by animals dying at a high rate, but we have never, even in a year, reported such a thing to the government. We normally buy medication and treat it ourselves,” he added.

In the meantime, after South Africa’s decision to effect the ban, the Lesotho Wool Centre last weekend offloaded 19 containers of 2000 bales of wool worth approximately M30 million. The wool was supposed to have been exported last Saturday.

The Centre’s spokesperson, Manama Letsie told the MNN Centre for Investigative Journalism that the wool had to be offloaded and brought back to the storerooms because of South Africa’s decision.

Letsie also said the wool was the latest batch from Qacha’s Nek, Mokhotlong and Mohale’s Hoek and had been delivered to the centre late.

“It was supposed to have been sold a long time ago but unfortunately, it only left the woolsheds for the centre at the end of April, and was about to leave last Saturday if not for the sad news from the SA government.”

However, Letsie is wondering how the outbreak affects them since the wool had been sheared before the anthrax was discovered.

“Apart from the fact that Thaba-Bosiu is too far from the affected areas, this wool was sheared from sheep and goats which are free of the anthrax. Before packaging the wool and before it was kept in the containers, veterinarians from the Ministry of Agriculture tested it to ensure it was free from any disease.

“But since South Africa has expressed its fears, we have to cancel the permits and keep the wool in store until the issue is resolved.  Then we can start applying for new permits after a month or so.

“However, by right, South Africa was supposed to have convinced itself, have proof that there was indeed an outbreak in the country, before taking such huge decisions which will also, at the end, affect its own economy.”

On his part, Lesotho Director-General Veterinary Services, Dr Relebohile Mahloane said the anthrax outbreak had been confirmed by experts and also rejected claims that the disease had been faked to influence farmers where to sell their produce.

He also said after the findings in the affected areas, Lesotho duly reported the issue to the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) and also notified neighbouring South Africa which ultimately imposed the ban on Lesotho imports.

“We can comfortably say that the anthrax disease in those affected areas has been contained and the areas have been under very close monitoring by the veterinarians.

“Proper reporting to all relevant organisations has been done as well,” he said.

A public awareness campaign was also strategically done to, among other reasons, improve the response rate from the farmers in case of such an outbreak in future “and since there are normally very few farmers who take their animals for vaccination during the vaccination campaigns,” Dr Mahloane added.

He also said vaccines had already been procured and the vaccination campaign began on Monday (3 June) and concludes on Friday (7 June).

Dr Mahloane further explained: “The ban was also imposed on the movement of live animals and animal products, including wool and mohair, in the affected areas and those within a 10km radius. The ban will not be lifted until atleast 21 days have elapsed since the last anthrax case or vaccination.”

Dr Mahloane allayed fears from farmers outside the affected areas, saying the outbreak was limited to a small area and was put under control at an early stage.

He further said it would be irresponsible to fake such an outbreak because export bans came with heavy losses especially wool and mohair, which were the mainstay of Lesotho’s agricultural exports.

Anthrax is a disease that affects warm-blooded animals and human beings. It is caused by the bacterium Bacillus anthracis.

Animals become infected by eating or licking material that is contaminated with spores or breathing in the spores. These spores are formed when the bacteria is exposed to oxygen in the event that an animal that died of anthrax is cut open.

In 2013, a student from the University of Free State conducted a research project on the ‘analysis of trade structures and pattern of wool and mohair export of Lesotho.’

The study showed that the market-share of Lesotho in the production of mohair increased from 7.3 percent in 2000 to 14.3 percent in 2009 and this had made Lesotho the second largest producer of mohair in the world.

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