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Rinderpest paralyses the Transport System

Avatar of inke inke - 15. avril 2016 - Discover Namibia

Rinderpest was rife in South Africa in 1896 (photo: Wikipedia).

In 1896, rinderpest broke out in the Zambezi River region and spread through southern Africa like wildfire. According to estimates some 2.5 million head of cattle died in South Africa alone. Game died in similar numbers. The cattle plague spread to Namibia, then the German colony of South West Africa, in early April 1897.

The authorities in German South West Africa tried to prevent the rinderpest from spreading to the colony with preventive measures such as barriers, disinfections and experimental inoculations, but to no avail.  

The cattle plague of 1897 eclipsed all livestock losses through animal diseases thus far. The transport network relied on ox wagons and was paralysed. Wagons with freight got stuck en route from Swakopmund to Windhoek because whole teams of oxen fell sick. 

The cattle plague accelerated the development of veterinary services in German South West Africa. The colony’s first vet, Dr W. Rickmann, was despatched in 1894 to treat cattle for lung disease. Following his initiative a pleuropneumonia post was set up on farm Gammans outside Windhoek in 1895. As rinderpest took hold of South West Africa the post was expanded into an institute of veterinary bacteriology where a vaccine against rinderpset was produced for the first time.  

Rinderpest is caused by a virus. The symptoms – high fever, discharge from the nasal cavity and mouth as well as diarrhoea – appear within 2 to 15 days after contracting the virus. More than 90 percent of the infected cattle die after about another week. The cattle plague is highly contagious and also affects game species such as African buffalo, giraffe, kudu and other antelope. 

Soon after the outbreak of rinderpest in German South West Africa, the German pioneer of modern bacteriology and microbiology, Professor Robert Koch, was asked to come to Windhoek. The Nobel laureate of 1905 sent his assistant, Dr Kohlstock, who was in South Africa at the time because of the cattle plague. He arrived in Swakopmund in May 1897. Systematic control mechanisms were immediately put into operation: the country was divided into vaccination districts and soldiers, public servants and farmers were taught how to administer vaccinations. 

The cattle were first inoculated with rinderpest gall. About four weeks later immunity was reinforced with a shot of rinderpest blood. In this manner it was possible to save almost 90 percent of the inoculated livestock. The death rate among livestock that had not been vaccinated was 95 percent.  

In the vast colony it was difficult enough to get white farmers involved in the vaccination campaign; the huge herds of cattle kept by the indigineous people, in particular the Herero, posed even bigger problems. The Herero had reservations against inoculation and hesitated for a long time before they agreed to the procedure. They lost up to 60 percent of their herds. In the central parts of the country around Windhoek, Otjimbingwe and Rehoboth, some 60 to 80 percent of cattle herds were saved by inoculation.

Almost all livestock farming and meat production was brought to a standstill by the rinderpest. Meat prices tripled. For the Herero people the loss of the larger part of their herds meant impoverishment. They had to sell land in order to survive. Before the outbreak of rinderpest the Herero had dominated the cattle trade because travelling traders preferred to barter with the Herero instead of buying from white settlers against cash payments. The cattle plague completely changed this. White farmers experienced an enormous cattle breeding boom. 

In 1897 the rinderpest raged mostly in the north and in the central parts of the country. The south was spared. In the same year still the disease disappeared as suddenly as it had occurred. Afterwards only small-scale outbreaks of rinderpest were recorded because the inoculated cattle and the calves of inoculated cows remained immune. 

Namibia is regarded free of rinderpest since 1905, but the Red Line, a veterinary fence in the northern parts of the country, is still there after more than a hundred years. A livestock disease-free zone with a width of 20 km was established in 1896 to prevent Rinderpest advancing from the north and east. Even today, this barrier divides the communal farming areas in the north from the mainly commercial farming areas in the rest of the country. These days the livestock disease-free zone predominantly serves to prevent the spread of foot-and-mouth disease.

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