Poison-honey culprit killed two elephants

01:43, Jan 31 2009

Tutu, the plant at the heart of a poisoned honey outbreak which has made at least 10 people seriously ill in the past week, has long been taking its toll on New Zealand health.

Though some human deaths have been recorded, four-legged inhabitants have been affected most widely.

In the early days of European settlement, farmers claimed to have lost up to 75 per cent of stock because of animals eating tutu. A 1971 estimate of likely cattle loss from tutu was 5 per cent to 10 per cent of South Island high-country herds.

More unusually, there are at least two documented cases of elephants dying in New Zealand after eating tutu – and two others were brought perilously close to death by the plant, before being saved by intravenous barbiturates.

In the 1977 edition of The Poisonous Plants in New Zealand, author Henry Connor says tutu caused some human deaths early in New Zealand's recorded history. Children were attracted to the glossy black berries on some varieties of tutu.

More commonly, though, it was livestock that suffered. Losses were mainly among cattle and sheep. Horses did not seem interested in tutu, while birds were less susceptible than other animals, and rabbits were unaffected.


Other, more exotic introduced species have also been affected.

In 1869, an elephant visiting Otago for an exhibition was poisoned by tutu. The Nelson Examiner and New Zealand Chronicle reported that the owner had driven it inland in search of rich pasture and among the grass was a crop of the poisonous plant.

"The poor animal fed heartily upon this for four hours, then went to a stream and took a long drink, turned, reeled, fell and died in three hours," the newspaper reported.

In 1956, an elephant travelling with the Bullen Brothers circus died after eating tutu while watering at the Mangawhero River, Conservation Department Tongariro conservator Paul Green said.

It was buried behind the railway houses at Ohakune Junction, Mr Green said.

Two female Indian elephants, seen eating tutu while travelling in open- sided trucks in 1968, had their story documented by veterinarian Ian Anderson, writing in the New Zealand Veterinary Journal.

They began convulsing and crashed to the ground. "Involuntary 'paddling' of the limbs, apparent loss of consciousness, and respiratory distress caused by the trunk coiling tightly were prominent signs," Dr Anderson said.

Both were injected with barbiturates and made full recoveries.