Africa is known for its diverse landscapes and iconic wildlife. The continent holds a quarter of the world’s biodiversity, is home to the world’s largest populations of megavertebrates, and provides vital terrestrial and aquatic ecosystem services to the planet. However, human-induced pressures have threatened Africa’s resources. With an expanding human population, increased land use and the resultant human-livestock-wildlife interface will continue to endanger Africa’s wildlife. Sadly, many species including rhinoceros, elephants, pangolins, and vultures are already endangered. As the survival of wildlife is inextricably linked to the state of the ecosystem they live within, prevention is key.
Pristine wildlife habitat has largely disappeared, and the human-livestock-wildlife interface is increasing across the continent. In the context of health, this overlap provides opportunities for species mixing and disease transmission as we have never before experienced. Similar to the disastrous effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, disease spillover can be catastrophic to already-fragile wildlife populations. VIEW is contributing to the proactive assessment, mitigation, and response to disease threats in African wildlife, bringing our proven wildlife health template to safeguard some of the remaining populations of Africa’s iconic species
2022 marked the beginning of VIEW’s expansion to Africa. Much of the year was focused on establishing partnerships with stakeholders and local organizations, conducting a gap analysis, planning a Wildlife Health Program for Rwanda, and searching for funds and support. In September 2022, our program veterinarian Dr. Lauren Ellis arrived at Akagera National Park to work on the ground with our in-country partners to fast-track the implementation of VIEW’s Rwanda program. And later that month, in collaboration with Akagera National Park, we held a wildlife health workshop for over 20 early-career Rwandan veterinarians interested in pursuing a career in conservation medicine. Executive Director Dr. Deborah McCauley and Director of International Programs Dr. Dawn Zimmerman traveled to Rwanda to help mentor and train, with lectures and activities over a 6-day period. Working with both local and international collaborators, VIEW has spearheaded a prioritized list of diseases to direct biosurveillance efforts and drafted best-practice protocols for wildlife procedures for Akagera conducted research on the health of the endangered mountain gorilla, and trained Rwandan, Ugandan, and Congolese great ape stakeholders in disease risk assessment and outbreak modeling.
In Kenya VIEW, along with the Institute of Primate Research, hosted a series of community and primary school workshops for the Samburu community living in Namunyak Conservancy. These workshops were led by Kenyan conservationists and focused on wildlife conservation and the importance of educating girls. Dr. Ellis joined the first set of workshops in September, meeting primary schoolchildren who formed a Wildlife Warriors club as part of our program at this site. Two of the girls will receive full 4-year secondary school scholarships beginning in 2023. Other activities in this program include exposure to conservation monitoring of the endangered Percival’s guereza and the De Brazza’s monkey.
2023 will be a big year for our Africa program. We intend to begin by hiring two Rwandan veterinary interns to work alongside Dr. Ellis and VIEW partners, to promote knowledge exchange and build local capacity in wildlife veterinary medicine and research. Additionally, we plan to hold quarterly workshops for Rwandan veterinarians and wildlife professionals centered around general medicine, targeted pachyderm medicine, One Health, and conservation. VIEW is also working on a collaboration with the University of Rwanda’s School of Veterinary Medicine wherein we will give lectures, provide mentorship, and host students at Akagera for experiential externships and research projects. In progressing with our Wildlife Health Program for Akagera National Park, we will continue to develop a best-practices manual and implement a disease surveillance and preventative health plan. We will assist in Akagera’s development of a basic veterinary laboratory on-site, including sourcing the equipment and supplies needed for emergency procedures. 2023 will also see the implementation of VIEW’s Wildlife Health Information System (WHIS) at Akagera for secure collection, storage, and analysis of wildlife health data. Additionally, through a collaboration with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, VIEW is creating a community education project for One Health through an interactive traveling exhibit entitled Female Health Across the Tree of Life, highlighting the uniqueness of Rwanda’s biodiversity while underscoring the commonality of health vulnerabilities of females across all species. This project will combine aspects of comparative medicine and One Health as it seeks to bring education and awareness of the inextricable link between all species to Rwandan audiences.
Notes from the field Dr. Lauren Ellis–
I’ve been privileged to be at the forefront of this project by representing VIEW on the ground in Rwanda. Working on this project has indeed been an incredible experience thus far and I look forward to continuing to work with our local partners here to help solidify Rwanda as a conservation leader. The park has already made strong commitments to conservation by bringing back previously extirpated species like African lions and critically endangered black rhinos. Additionally, it has become a safe haven for heavily poached white rhinos introducing them into the park in the largest single rhino translocation in history. VIEW’s goal is to elevate the health side of wildlife conservation, helping to strengthen capacity in clinical care, monitoring (e.g., causes of morbidity and mortality), research, and disease biosurveillance. In line with VIEW’s mission to build locally sustainable programs, we’ve recently conducted a wildlife health workshop for over 20 early-career Rwandan veterinarians. We’ve received a lot of great feedback from the participants and look forward to organizing more workshops in the future. Through the generous donations of our supporters, we’ve been able to hit the ground running but there is still much more to be done.