Chronic copper poisoning was investigated in ruminants within the Phalaborwa area of the Kruger National Park (KNP). Exposure of ruminants to environmental copper pollution resulting from copper smelting operations of a mine in the area was examined by comparing impala faecal copper concentrations in dung heaps and tissue (liver, lung and kidney) copper concentrations of organs collected from impala and buffalo culled within three risk zones (high, moderate and low) of the study area in relation to the distance from the smelter over a period of 4 years. An additional area within the KNP not exposed to the environmental copper pollution from the mine served as control. Tissue copper accumulation was also determined in tracer impala placed in the highest risk zone. The results of this study confirmed the occurrence of chronic copper poisoning in impala and indicated an inverse relationship in extent of impala faecal copper elimination and in tissue copper accumulation in impala and buffalo with distance from the copper smelter. Impala liver copper concentrations were shown to be a reliable indicator of copper accumulation for these ruminants. The presence lung copper concentrations, indicating the exposure to airborne copper were the highest in impala culled in the zone closest to the smelter. Liver copper concentrations above the diagnostic limit of 150 ppm for chronic copper poisoning in domestic sheep were consistently found in impala within the highest risk zone. Clinical pathological measurements suggested that AST activity could possibly be used as an indicator for chronic copper poisoning in impala. It is concluded that, in addition to the environmental and geo-botanical evidence previously reported, the copper smelter of a nearby copper mine is the most likely source of copper pollution responsible for chronic copper poisoning in impala and the occurrence of high copper concentrations in buffalo in the Phalaborwa area of the KNP.
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