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.