Wildlife Vets Have High Value, But It Needs to be Further Realized: A Conversation with Dr. Chris Smith of African Wildlife Vets
Dr. Chris Smith of African Wildlife Vets clearly has a lot of important work on his plate. Take his duties of October 2021. He spent the month in and out of the bush with partners tracking, darting, and dehorning rhinos in the Mpumalanga Province of South Africa, an area near the fabled Kruger National Park.
Dehorning is an important conservation tool, as it reduces incidents of poaching. That said, it is not a silver bullet. As Dr. Smith indicates, “dehorning is part of a broader conservation effort…” that is required to effectively protect rhinos and keep their populations healthy. Dehorning needs to be strategically integrated with related interventions, including land protection and management, anti-poaching, and support for the overall health of animals and their populations. If dehorning is viewed in isolation, important factors such dehorned animals being poached for the small but still lucrative remnants of horns they retain, diseases may spread, rhino behavior may be disrupted by well-intentioned but repeated dehorning activities (e.g., think recurrent helicopter flights over rhinos), and dehorned rhinos may lose stature within social structures that include rhinos with horns. But this integration doesn’t always occur, thereby limiting the effectiveness of conservation efforts.
Wildlife vets are not only important in conservation as it relates to animals, but also to conservation as it relates to people. For better or worse, COVID has revealed to many the risks of neglecting research on, monitoring of, and intervention for diseases that can spring up in wild animals but transfer to livestock, other domestic animals, and humans. Even still, veterinary operations remain underfunded, underequipped, and under-staffed.
So, what’s the problem? Part of it is a seeming limited view of the value of vets in conservation and a resultant lack of inclusion of vets in big picture conservation strategy, as well as a persistent under-resourcing of veterinary efforts within that bigger picture. Across Africa limited investment in wildlife veterinary operations is clear. Numerous countries, for instance, have a single, well-qualified wildlife vet employed by governments or available at all. In places like northeastern Kenya, even amid recurring endangered species crises, it may take a week or more to secure help from a veterinarian to treat an animal, herd, or population. Even when vets are readily available, they are often seen as “hired guns” who are called upon to dart, drug and treat animals and then sent on their way. And vets tend to be last in line for funding or in-kind donations that would provide them with essential tools and research such as rugged vehicles, x-ray and ultrasound equipment, vaccines and medication, and studies that would inform vets and conservationists about, for example, repeated dehorning on populations dynamics.
Veterinary interventions are not cheap either. It can cost as much as $500 to $600 per hour to hire even a small helicopter to aid in tracking, darting and immobilizing animals. Portable x-ray, ultrasound and other necessary equipment can reach prices in the thousands of US dollars, and adequate vehicles, even at generous discounts, amount to $30,000 - $60,000.
Few protected areas and National Parks employ well-qualified wildlife veterinarians and, instead, rely on contacting and bringing in one of a limited few vets who may be available for isolated medical actions.
What has led to this lack of vet integration in conservation and the under-resourcing of them? There seem to be a variety of reasons, starting with a disconnect in education. Academic careers of conservationists, protected area managers and veterinarians rarely intersect. If they do not intermix in school, and if academic programs don’t weave together all the disciplines necessary to comprehensively act on conservation needs, integration of professionals is neither natural nor prioritized.
Certain countries and regions, too, have wildlife veterinary histories that have marred the field’s reputation. South African parks and organizations, for example, employed wildlife vets primarily as support for game-breeding only a couple of decades ago. While game-breeding is less pervasive today, the stigma of game-breeding may be lingering for vets.
And the growth of large conservation organizations and operations that have traditionally focused on land protection, restoration and management have accelerated with little inclusion of wildlife veterinarians.
Highly qualified, passionate, and hard-working vets like Dr. Smith do exist in Africa, and effective organizations such as African Wildlife Vets do operate. However, their impact could be much larger if they were more fully integrated into conservation planning, strategy, and action, and if they were equipped with the tools, research, and personnel that rise to the level of needs before them. It is time that we dramatically upscale funding, resourcing, and inclusion of wildlife vets in the full spectrum of conservation efforts. They have tremendous value for people and nature, but this value can only be fully realized by giving them the support and integration they need.
Have you heard of VET BOOKS FOR AFRICA? Vet Books for Africa is a truly unique, student-run venture that was established in 1993 with the aim to empower veterinary faculties and veterinary operations in African countries outside of South Africa by providing much-needed veterinary textbooks and other supplies.
Based in Onderstepoort, Pretoria, South Africa, at the Onderstepoort Faculty of Veterinary Science, Vet Books for Africa has been making biannual trips around the continent since 1993. To date, they have made 14 trips, reached 6 universities, traveled 97 000 kilometers, and distributed approximately 2600 books. The group distributes textbooks, journals, and other veterinary supplies and equipment to veterinary faculties, rural communities, conservation organizations and schools in various countries of Africa. They will also be aiding and volunteering at veterinary clinics and conservation sanctuaries on route.
The 2022 committee aims to improve the already amazing organization by reaching out to more countries and organizations than ever before. The group will be visiting 8 countries and helping a total of 17 organizations including universities, conservation organization, and schools. They are planning two trips, the first one taking place from the 1st to the 9th of July 2022 and second from the 2nd of December 2022 until the 9th of January 2023. They are seeking donations to support their efforts. Donations can be made via the Global Giving QR code provided in the poster below. Please visit them at VetBooksforAfrica.
Addressing some of Uganda’s most urgent wildlife and conservation priorities: Dr. James Watuwa
In Murchison Falls National Park, Uganda, wildlife veterinarian and WCN 2019 scholarship recipient James Watuwa works quickly to free a baby African bush elephant from a snare. As the mother paces and trumpets nearby, James gently untangles the long, looped piece of wire cutting into the elephant’s hind leg and treats the wound with antibiotics. Once finished, he steps away quickly, giving the mother ample space to safely rejoin her baby. As James watches the two of them disappear into the forest, he worries about other hidden snares in the wildlife refuge.
A typical day in the field for James might include rescuing a snared elephant, collaring a lion, or surveying mountain gorilla populations for the Ugandan and Rwandan governments. Taking care of animals has been a part of his life since childhood and his love for wildlife inspired him to become a veterinarian.
Dr. Watuwa grew up in the Manafwa District of Uganda where his love for animal began early in childhood while tending to home pets and livestock. Dr. Watuwa is a wildlife and zoo veterinarian with Uganda wildlife conservation education center (Entebbe zoo) as well as a co-founder of the Endangered Wildlife Conservation Organization (EWCO www.ewco.org.ug ). With five years’ experience as a field wildlife veterinarian in Uganda. While studying at Makerere University, he interned and participated in zoo keeper activities at Uganda Wildlife and Conservation Education Centre (Entebbe zoo) where he met and worked with zoo keepers who mentored him into considering a career in wildlife veterinary medicine. His choice to study veterinary medicine at university was thus a culmination of his determination to advance a career in conservation from health perspective. Although studying veterinary medicine Dr. Watuwa made direct connections to wildlife such as participating in elephant and lion collaring, rescue of snared animals as well as wildlife population counts. After graduating, He started as a volunteer wildlife veterinarian working in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park while protecting and monitoring of Mountain Gorilla health. He was later offered a job within CTPH NGO as a wildlife veterinarian during which he co- Lead a research team in the 2018 Bwindi –Sarambwe Mountain gorilla census sweeping through forests, finding gorilla trails and night nests, and collecting gorilla fecal samples for analysis that lead to status downgrade from critically endangered to endangered. He also developed his NGO management skills and knowledge in conducting research and community centered conservation projects.
He brings on board experience and skills developed in community centered conservation, zoo and wildlife veterinary practice developed while working under the supervision and guidance of senior veterinary doctors from, CTPH, and Uganda Wildlife Authority. Currently Dr. Watuwa is a senior veterinarian at Uganda Wildlife and Conservation Education Centre (Entebbe zoo).
Understanding the potential impact of oil exploration and mining in Uganda
After graduating as a veterinary surgeon from Makerere University ( BVM, 2017) , James became concerned about how oil exploration might affect wildlife, particularly the wellbeing of elephants. While he believes that the oil industry has great potential to contribute to Uganda’s economic development, he is concerned the activities involved in oil and gas exploration and development can have detrimental impacts on sensitive ecosystems.
To find out more he is gathering fecal samples of the elephants and analyzing them for stress hormones and helminthes (parasites).
The purpose of this study is to generate data on animal behaviors and levels of stress in relation to seasonality and geographical differences and to advise appropriate measures for minimizing potential impacts from development activities. Details of this project can be found at Elephant Stress Levels Impacted by Oil Development in Uganda? (wildanimalhealthfund.org).
Dr. Watuwa carrying out ballotment test to detect pregnancy on African lioness during annual health checks at UWEC (Photo by Kibuuka Diana)
In 2022 Now earning his MSc in Wildlife Health and Management, James brings a wealth of experience as a wildlife and zoo veterinarian ,rescuing snared animals, collaring elephants and lions, participating in gorilla census and giraffe translocations, leading park ranger trainings to improve gorilla health monitoring. His other projects include developing a stress hormone strip project and working to reduce human-related threats to gorillas in the Bwindi Project by strengthening the capacity of rangers in forensics.
Citizen science for amphibian conservation
But this is just one of James’ interests. Knowing that community engagement is key to successful wildlife conservation efforts, James started a community-based conservation project: the Endangered Wildlife Conservation Organization (EWCO), formerly called Elgon Wildlife Conservation Organization. Their key focuses are on amphibian and reptile conservation, which has been at the forefront of identifying and conservation of amphibian species and promoting knowledge of them in Ugandan communities.
Through the program, EWCO volunteers can gather and share information about amphibian and reptile observations across Uganda. The data gathered is made available to HerpMapper Partners/ groups who use the recorded observations for raising conservation awareness, research and conservation.
Examining a frog. Photo by Kennedy.
COVID didn’t need an enviro-humanitarian crisis to become a global scourge, but the worsening situation in Northeastern Kenya underscores that crises of the future may require rapid "one health" responses without which they could increasingly give rise to global calamities.
Kenya’s Arid and Semi-Arid Lands (ASAL) lie mostly in the northern and eastern parts of the country. In recent years, they have experienced severe drought conditions. These conditions, alongside conflict, poverty, land conversion, poaching and a variety of other challenges, have resulted in an alarming mix of famine, increased discord and growing devastation to wildlife and ecosystems. Experts project that this year’s short rain season (October-December) will bring little relief, causing drought conditions to worsen. Already an estimated 2.1 million Kenyans suffer extreme drought with many at risk of starvation. More than 2.4 million residents are expected to experience such conditions by the end of November.
The suffering of livestock animals has been well-documented during the crisis, many starving, dying of thirst, or succumbing to disease. Less well-documented has been the hardship facing wildlife. Fleeing conflict areas, seeking dwindling habitat, and driven away from increasing numbers of farm fields and other human settlements, giraffe, antelope, buffalo, and a variety of other native wildlife have crowded into protected areas and surrounding lands. Jam-packed, they have become more susceptible to disease and parasites and more prone to fight each other for territory and mates. The Somali Giraffe Project recently documented, “…perhaps the most gruesome giraffe battle…” in which two male giraffes necked each other through busy road traffic resulting in both becoming exhausted and immobile. Nearby farm workers, desperate for meat, gathered knives and machetes, ready to take advantage of the debilitated giraffe, only deterred when Kenya Wildlife Service staff arrived to safeguard the animals until they recovered.
Human-wildlife conflict has dramatically increased in the area. With less habitat, declining water sources and fear of human-human conflict areas, wildlife encroach onto farms and fields more frequently and are more vulnerable to attacks by people. What’s more, as livestock and other food sources contract, bushmeat poachers seize opportunities to harvest wildlife and sell their flesh to willing buyers who seek alternatives to higher and higher priced livestock meat. In September, three poachers were arrested in Garissa County with an entire butchered giraffe in their car.
When it comes to wildlife, Northeastern Kenya is home to unique and endangered creatures. These animals are increasingly jeopardized as drought conditions worsen and related hazards increase. In late 2020, the only known female white giraffe in Kenya and its calf were found killed. Hirola, the most endangered antelope in the world, residing only in this region, as well as the beleaguered reticulated giraffe, have been documented with diseases that likely originated from livestock.
Drought. Famine. Human-human conflict. Human-wildlife conflict. Humans, livestock, wildlife all crowding closer and closer together, malnourished, and susceptible to a wide variety of maladies – it doesn’t take much of a leap to imagine a novel zoonotic disease passing from wildlife to humans or to their livestock and leading to a pandemic that threatens all the above locally and globally.
The situation is clearly a One Health crisis that, if time, resources, systems, structures, practices and will were available, an expedited, all-hands-on-deck intervention would be appropriate and perhaps necessary to apply. And, of course, the socio-political, security, criminal and combative elements of the crisis add a level of complexity that inhibits rapid action. It makes me wonder if and how the One Health community and all the necessary disciplines within it might collectively develop quickly-applied remedies for such desperate situations. As effects of climate change continue to amplify the burdens of already-degraded, slim-resourced, conflict-ridden areas, it seems imperative that we do. Otherwise, the cases of local crises turning into global ones may become all too frequent.
Pandemics and Pachyderms