Disease detectives track buffalo in Ruaha National Park

We received a great update from HALI's own Dr. Annette Roug last week, who has been in Tanzania with our team and the Tanzania National Park vets continuing their ongoing study of park buffalo populations....

- Annette Roug

During the last few weeks, HALI team members were back in Ruaha National Park for buffalo work. The GPS collars that we placed in 2014 have now run out of battery.  We attempted to find buffaloes with collars in order to remove the collars. In addition, we sampled another five animals for disease testing and conducted demographic surveys. 

The capture and sampling of the five additional animals were successful. We sampled four bulls and one cow from three different herds. We succeeded in removing one collar. The cow had a little calf and both looked very healthy. 

The pictures show the sampling of buffalo bulls near Jongomero, and one shows HALI's Erasto Katowo and myself removing the collar from the cow with the ID SAT1497. The remaining are photos of buffalo and the blood tubes that we collect.

Foraging for Emerging Viruses

HALI Scientist Dr. Liz Vanwormer from UC Davis led a team into the forests of the Udzungwa Mountains to track baboons and monkeys and forage for specimens for the PREDICT project.  These specimens are now at the UC Davis laboratory where they will undergo screening for viruses as part of a global initiative funded by USAID designed to detect and prevent the spillover of pathogens from animals to people.  

I want my mummy!

It's Halloween and we all want our mummies.  Thankfully Nick Brandt comes to the rescue with some amazingly appropriate content.  

 Our PREDICT team especially likes this mummified fruit bat.

Our PREDICT team especially likes this mummified fruit bat.

In northern Tanzania, Lake Natron beckons wild birds and bats to their deaths by using the lakes reflective surface as a visual attractant.  The animals crash into the lake's surface and the water's chemical content, extremely high in soda and salts, calcifies their carcasses, preserving them as they wash ashore.

Nick, a talented photographer,  walked the shores of Lake Natron collecting the carcasses and then posed them in the landscape as if they were brought back to life; the Evil Dead, or more realistically, dead souls come to haunt the living or spirits warning us about the Lake's dark powers.

Check out more of Nick's work in his new book Across the Ravaged Land... 

Images by ©Nick Brandt via Gizmodo. 

The March for Elephants

- Alphonce Msigwa* and David Wolking

Could we live in a world without elephants?  That might be an easier question to answer if elephants are not part of your life, your landscape, or your culture.  But in Tanzania and throughout Africa, elephants (tembo or ndovu in Kiswahli) are very much part of day-to-day life.  Ecological engineers, they prune our forests, disperse seeds and plant trees, blaze trails and make firebreaks, occasionally eat from our gardens, and grace the labels of our favorite beers.  But a world without elephants may soon become a reality without change, change that the Wildlife Connection and other conservation groups are working to achieve.

Wildlife Connection is a non-governmental organization in Pawaga and Idodi Divisions in Iringa Rural District. On 4 October 2013, the NGO organized the local event for the March for Elephants campaign in Iringa town to show their compassion for elephants and opposition to the enormous killing and destruction of elephants in Southern Tanzania’s protected areas, including Ruaha National Park and MBOMIPA Wildlife Management Area. Many stakeholders were invited to this special event in Iringa, and as part of the campaign, 40 other big cities around the world held similar marches.

The HALI project was invited  to the march, as one of the stakeholders dealing with health for animals, both domestic and wild. Project Coordinator, Dr. Goodluck Paul and other staff including Asha Makweta, Elizabeth Komba and Amani Zacharia joined other stakeholders from Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), Udzungwa Elephant Project (UEP), Southern Tanzania Protected Area Network (SPANEST), Tanzania Tourist Board (TTB), Tanzania Association for Tour Operators (TATO) and Tanzania National Parks (TANAPA) to fight against the brutality against elephants.

Some statistics, shared by the guest of honor, Shadow Minister of Natural Resources and Tourism Mr. Peter Msigwa show that elephant poaching is a big threat to these animals, and is responsible for a massive decrease in elephants numbers from 2,000,000 in 1971 to 130,000 today, with major social, ecological and economic impacts. In a nutshell, a total of 33,000 elephants were killed from 2010 to 2013 in Tanzania, and if this rate of poaching increases or is sustained, in seven years elephants will be locally extinct in Tanzania, a disaster to the country economy, which depends heavily on wildlife and safari tourism and a devastating blow to our culture which has shared this landscape with elephants since the dawn of human history.

These statistics puzzled the HALI staff and our team is now working to prepare posters and work to raise awareness of these issues, and to share their concerns about elephants and wildlife, their health, ecology, and survival. 

*Alphonce Msigwa is a wildlife professional, journalist and conservation enthusiast working with the HALI project on the USAID-funded Feed the Future Livestock Innovation Lab Collaborative Research Support Program project.  He has published over 30 articles in Tanzania wildlife magazines and journals, and looks forward to contributing more to the HALI blog, especially on livelihood and conservation issues. 

 

To learn more about the March for Elephants, visit their main site here. 

To learn more about elephant poaching and threats to elephant conservation, visit the 96 Elephants Campaign.

To help protect elephants and conserve vital elephant habitat in the Ruaha ecosystem and surrounding areas, consider a donation to the Wildlife Connection.

Buffalo, cow, man, and mycobacterium – inside the microbial exchange in Tanzania

-David Wolking

“For a time, all was bountiful in the land, but then drought came. No rain fell for months, and it became drier and drier, hotter and hotter. The stream stopped flowing. The water hole turned first to mud and then to dry, cracked earth.  One by one, the animals slowly left or starved until no one was left…”  - Lion, Chameleon and Chicken, A Gogo Bantu Folktale from Tanzania

Change is coming.  It was first recognized in the landscape, when the Great Ruaha River in Tanzania, the lifeblood of a land where miombo woodlands of Southern Africa blend into the Sudanian Acacia-Commiphora zone of East Africa, slowly dried up.  That seasonal drying, along with other changes in the landscape, agricultural intensification, deforestation, extension of grazing lands into protected areas, may be the source of other less noticeable changes, microscopic changes. 

In the Ruaha ecosystem, home to Tanzania’s largest national park and protected area, researchers with the Health for Animals and Livelihood Improvement (HALI) project are investigating how these changes at both the landscape and microscopic level affect the health of wildlife, domestic animal and human communities.  In a new publication released in June, HALI researchers report the detection of Mycobacterium bovis, a bacterium that can cause tuberculosis in animals and humans, in 8 species of wildlife, including the first detection of M. bovisin 3 new species: Kirk’s Dik Dik, vervet monkeys, and yellow baboons.  In addition, the team detected M. bovis in African buffalo inside Ruaha National Park, the first confirmed buffalo infection in Tanzania. 

“Although we anticipated we might find bovine tuberculosis in species closely related to cattle, like buffalo, the documentation of infection in 8 different species occupying different ecological niches both within and outside wildlife protected areas was unexpected and suggests the existence of a complex wildlife-livestock transmission cycle.”   - Dr. Deana Clifford, founding HALI project coordinator and wildlife veterinarian for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife

The microbial market place

In Ruaha, M. bovis is not a stranger, at least to domestic animals and their caretakers.  There is wide spread bovine tuberculosis (bTB) in cattle in the area, and as a zoonotic pathogen, tuberculosis may also affect human communities.  The HALI team looked at bTB in livestock, and observing the land-use changes in the Ruaha area, hypothesized that tuberculosis was also infecting wildlife populations. Livestock herds frequently share grazing lands, foraging areas, and water holes with wildlife, and as a result may swap microbes and parasites with other species through environmental contamination, or in the case of M. bovis, even through aerosols, through a cough or a sneeze.   

From 2006-2010, HALI worked with game scouts employed by the Community Wildlife Management Areas bordering Ruaha National Park, hunting companies, Park staff, and village networks to obtain tissue samples from hunter-killed, depredated animals (animals killed for causing crop damage in fields), and carcasses.  Two HALI game scouts, Coaster and Shukuru, social network nodes for news of animal deaths, would hear about a kill or a carcass and bicycle out into the bush to collect tissue samples and GPS the location.  Samples were then sent to the project laboratory at the Sokoine University of Agriculture, a center of excellence for molecular diagnostics and tuberculosis detection. 

The team collected tissues from 149 animals of 30 different species, the majority (69%) collected outside protected areas in village lands.  Sokoine University cultured the samples for mycobacterium and used PCR assays to detect M. bovis.  Positive samples were spoligotyped (a technique used to delineate mycobacterium species and distinguish unique strains), and they found that M. bovis isolates from infected wildlife were identical to the strains of M. bovis found in livestock herds.  In an area where human settlements, activities and livestock grazing areas are pushing further and further into wildlife habitat, the animals are trading.  They just don’t know it, and it is possible that this microbial trade could be making them sick.

Although the team’s findings suggest that livestock herds and wildlife are sharing M. bovis, it is not clear who started it.  With M. bovis-infected African buffalo herd inside Ruaha National Park, a herd that encounters livestock rarely, and little to no bovine tuberculosis control among livestock in the area, it is possible M. bovis is maintained in the ecosystem by both wildlife and livestock.  Because the team found M. bovis in wildlife species occupying very different ecological niches, from buffalo to other ungulates like dik diks and impala all the way up the evolutionary chain to our primate cousins vervet monkey and yellow baboon, it appears that M. bovis is settled down and is planning to stay.  Buffalo in particular are a major maintenance host for bovine tuberculosis in Africa, once bTB is established in a free-ranging herd, that herd can sustain infection without repeated trade of M. bovis with other animals like livestock.  In other words, M. bovis becomes a resident, and since buffalo are often preyed on or scavenged by carnivores and other wildlife, the microbe can spillover to other species in the ecosystem, even humans like hunters.  In Tanzania wild meat is usually smoked or roasted, nyama choma, but before you have meat you must have a butcher, and field dressing a carcass without appropriate hygiene and sanitation measures can be a risk for exposure to bTB.

Regulating the exchange?

Now that M. bovis seems to be a microbial resident in both livestock and wildlife in the area, how do you control its spread?  The HALI team identify several management options in the article, but for a pathogen intrinsically linked to multiple species in different ecological niches, these management options require an ecosystem-based approach linking livestock and human health interventions with conservation and development goals. 

  1. The Ruaha River is drying, and if that continues, the health of the entire ecosystem will suffer.  The good news is that continuing and enhancing current conservation efforts to improve hydrologic flow, prevent bank erosion and improve water quality will increase water abundance, allowing more spaces for animals to drink and limiting interspecies contact. 
  2. Ecological restoration and conservation efforts should be expanded to preserve remaining wildlife habitat and help address wildlife forays into village land, farms, and grazing areas.  
  3. The veterinary community can target test of cattle and wildlife for bTB and a range of other diseases in shared grazing lands to identify areas or sites with increased spillover risk, and work to better understand livestock grazing strategies, locations, and sites to improve planning for pasture access and livestock production.  
  4. Finally, and perhaps most critical is improving livelihoods.  Increasing income to rural residents through poverty reduction programs, increased market access, training and education can reduce reliance on natural resources for survival, the driving force behind land use change that may be undermining ecological health and driving M.bovis and other zoonotic disease transmission dynamics.

In this approach, conservation is linked to development – with more water from a flowing river, better grazing opportunities, healthier livestock, and improved livelihoods, the pressure for livestock and wildlife to share resources, interact, and exchange microbes can be reduced, and the animals, along with their caretakers, will not have to slowly leave the water holes until no one is left.

 Read the full article “Tuberculosis infection from wildlife in the Ruaha ecosystem Tanzania: implications for wildlife, domestic animals, and human health” at Epidemiology & Infections, or contact the author, Dr. Deana Clifford (dlclifford@ucdavis.edu)

 

 

Twiga Take-Down!

What does it take to safely anesthetize and collect samples from an adult giraffe (twiga in Kiswahli)?  In short, a very carefully planned take-down with highly trained veterinarians and wildlife health technicians....

Check out our slideshow to learn more about HALI's partnership with Ruaha National Park and Sokoine University of Agriculture veterinarians on an investigation into an emerging skin disease in the local giraffe population.

Read more about HALI Partnerships in Wildlife Health here...

Secrets of the Batcave...

Most bat caves have more bats than toys... 

- David Wolking

The caves were interesting, full of bats. At this chamber you could just hear all the bats surrounding you and when the guide point to the inside of the chamber you could see hundreds of bats just flying around. - Melvin (a tourist in Tanzania at the Amboni Caves, Tanga Region)

 Cave tourism sounds like a great time.  You shimmy down through a limestone tunnel into a large cavern in the dark, headlamps shining sporadically on stalactites and casting eery shadows, the echo of your voice and of dripping water, and the chirping of cave bats.  Cave tourism also means big business.  Mammoth Cave National Park  generates an estimated $64 million for the south central Kentucky area each year.

But cave tourism also presents certain risks.  Beyond the fear of headlamps dying out leaving you in the dark bowels of the earth without Batman's utility belt and his famous nightvision Bat-goggles, there is the risk of disease both to you and to those happily chirping and roosting bats.

If you somehow missed the plethora of news reports, White-nose Syndrome (WNS), a fungus infecting bats and causing them to awake more often during hibernation, has been associated with the deaths of 5-6 million North American bats.  The rapid spread of WNS and uncertainty about its spread and transmission has lead the US Fish and Wildlife Service to declare a moratorium on caving activities in affected regions, as it is suspected that the fungus is transported through soil via clothing and boots of cavers.

But bats are not the only ones that can get sick when hanging out with people in caves.  We know bats harbor a lot of disease causing organisms, including viruses like rabies, Marburg, and coronaviruses like SARS, and people visiting caves have been infected and in some cases even died from these viruses.

Caves are fascinating ecosystems, and cave-dwelling bats live in amazingly social, interesting colonies.  A recent article in PLOS Pathogens describes the behavioral characteristics of Egytian fruit bats in Python Cave, Uganda, a popular cave tourist destination associated with recent Marburg virus outbreaks.  In Python, the fruit bats compete for roosting space in the cave, with juvenile sub-adult bats dwelling in less secure locations in tight clusters near the floors and cave entrance, locations with higher risk of predation (it is after all Python Cave), and where they get shit on.  Literally.  Roosting near the floor of the cave means all your relatives and elders above urinate and defecate on your head, a risk factor for viral exposure the researchers speculate is linked to seasonal pulses of Marburg virus circulation in this sub-adult demographic.  So, to make a long story short, all that guano cave tourists are trudging through could be infectious, it could make you sick.

I stress that it could make you sick because in a lot of cases we don't really know.  Even in the Python Cave study, the researchers were unable to detect Marburg virus in the bat guano.   But we do know people visiting caves, or working in mines or abandoned mine shafts have gotten sick from viruses linked to bats in the past, and have died.  The risk is there.  Cave tourists beware.

What does this have to do with HALI?   

  "We went caving at the Amboni caves (home to more bats than I would have liked!)" - Christine

 "We went caving at the Amboni caves (home to more bats than I would have liked!)" - Christine

Our PREDICT project field team is in northern Tanzania this month capturing bats and rodents at high-risk human-wildlife contact interfaces, like the cave tourism context, where people might get sick from wild animals.  One of the places they are visiting is the Amboni Caves, where our friend Melvin (quoted above) saw so many bats.   Amboni is a popular tourist destination and the largest cave system in East Africa.  Lonely Planet even advises cave visitors to "wear closed toed shoes to avoid picking bat droppings off your feet."  Nice - some inadvertent disease risk prevention advice from the travel gurus! 

We hope to capture and sample some of the Amboni cave bats and investigate them for viruses that may be harmful to people.  By looking at bat feces (and other samples), we can determine if there are infectious disease risks to cave visitors and other high-risk groups like the cave guides.  If Zika brought his utility belt, we may even get some good pictures from Amboni to share, so tune in soon, "same bat-time, same bat-channel..."

 

Roasted Mice

 Rodents are a popular delicacy in Southern Tanzania and Malawi.  Photo from "Eating Roasted Mice in Malawi" via The Daily Mail.

Rodents are a popular delicacy in Southern Tanzania and Malawi.  Photo from "Eating Roasted Mice in Malawi" via The Daily Mail.

- David Wolking

In certain areas along the Indian Ocean coast from Kenya to Malawi (and likely beyond), mice hunting, rat trapping, and rodent roasting can be pretty popular. Rodents are actually a common source of protein worldwide, even in Paris, where rats were eaten on a large scale during the Franco-Prussian War and reportedly taste like partridge and pork. There is even a recipe in Larouse Gastronomique for Entrecote à la bordelaise (Bordeaux style grilled rat), and it looks delicious.

Over the weekend, Zika and the field team returned from the Mtwara region in Southern Tanzania, where they worked with the Ward Councilor and village leaders to learn about rodent hunting and consumption, and partnered with local hunters to trap the popular delicacies for sampling.  We know rodents, especially mice like Mastomys natalensis (the Natal multimammate mouse) are reservoir hosts for zoonotic viruses like Lassa Fever in Sub-Saharan Africa, and the hunting and consumption of wild meat is a risky practice for disease emergence.  When we learned about the popularity of roasting mice in the area, sampling in Mtwara became a priority for disease surveillance as part of the USAID-funded PREDICT project

After introducing PREDICT to the local leaders and identifying some hunters to help guide them towards prime trapping zones, the team captured 50 rodents (mainly field mice) in 3 different villages.  As part of our disease outreach program, the team also talked with the hunters and local leaders about the risks of zoonotic diseases, and ways to minimize disease transmission between people and rodents.  It seems rodent hunting is a popular activity for both children and adults in the area, and larger rodents fattened on grain after a harvest can sometimes feed several people.  Hunters capture the rodents in locally made traps, and are typically roasted (nyama choma - barbecued meat).  Cooking meat well is a good practice to destroy viral RNA that might cause diseases like Lassa Fever, and the HALI team did their best to communicate other risks involved in disease transmission from rodents like bites during trapping, cuts during butchering, or even inhaling aerosolized urine or feces if the animals were in the local traps for a time before removal for the big barbecue.

With the samples packed up in liquid nitrogen, the team transported them back to Sokoine University of Agriculture in Morogoro.  There, Ruth Maganga, PREDICT's laboratory technologist will process them and extract the RNA, and prepare them for viral screening to determine if any of the rodents we sampled were shedding viruses, and ultimately if those viruses might pose a threat to human health.

 

Sampling Fruit Bats, Dar es Salaam

- David Wolking

The HALI field team led by Drs. Zikankuba Sijali and Goodluck Paul was in Dar es Salaam all weekend identifying fruit bat colonies near urban areas as part of the PREDICT's wildlife disease surveillance project.  Using mist nets (special nets designed to safely capture bats) suspended from roosting sites high in the trees, the team trapped three different species of bats at multiple sites, and took samples to help PREDICT understand what viruses these ancient mammals carry that might pose a potential health threat to humans.  All of the bats were released after sampling, to continue their critical ecological role as pollinators.  Our staff scientist Dr. Liz Vanwormer captured the team in action in these great pictures.

 

This little rodent went to market...

The PREDICT team at Tandale market chatting up the market manager about Ratatouille in November.

- David Wolking

Today the PREDICT team led by Zika and Goodluck laid their first traps at the Tandale market in Dar es Salaam.  This kicks off a new phase for PREDICT, where we begin trapping at high-risk urban areas for human and wildlife contact.  For us in the US, "urban" contact with wildlife usually means throwing whatever is handy at mice, rats, or raccoons, or maybe feeding ducks and pigeons.  In Dar, it's really not that different, except they have fruit bats, and it's nothing like the US at all, I lied.  The first site Zika chose for sampling is one of the biggest markets in town, full of delicious looking fruits and vegetables, and according to the Tandale market manager, full of rodents.  

After talking with the market manager and getting the market guards to guarantee the safety of our traps overnight, Zika and Goodluck set out a trapping grid in the early evening, and will head on back to the market at 3:30AM to check the traps, and if we're lucky, do some very minimal and safe sampling.

I'm expecting these market mice to be foodies, Tandale is a magical place for the culinarily inclined.  I'm sure if Remy lived in Dar, he'd live in Tandale and whip up a magical curry rich in Zanzibari spices, coconut milk, and pili pili...  Maybe Pixar will do a Ratatouille 2: Swahili Coast edition.  Pixar?  Pixar are you there?  It's me Remy and I want to go to Tanzania! 

 

Disease Package

- David Wolking

"The role of disease in wildlife populations has probably been radically underestimated" - Aldo Leopold

So begins the special issue Disease Package in the Wildlife Professional, the quarterly magazine of the Wildlife Society.  In case you missed this last Spring, you need to check it out.  Why?  Because it's amazing and everyone loves packages.  Even disease packages.  As a special treat for HALI fans, our very own Drs. Deana Clifford and Jonna Mazet have a special feature on page 20 "One Health Drives Wildlife Vets".  There are also great contributions on why disease is relevant in wildlife conservation, the role of disease in marine ecosystems, and of course on infectious disease spillover, that often referenced human-animal interface we spend so much of our time investigating through projects like HALI and PREDICT.  So check it out, and if you like it, consider supporting the Wildlife Society so they can keep making these great publications and give us more packages!

 

 

 

So, you want to be a disease detective?

- David Wolking

If you're a person who's wandered through the forest and come across a dead animal or  a carcass, or been driving down a country road and spotted road kill and wondered "Hey, maybe that thing was killed by some crazy infectious disease!" then you're in the right place.  Once you enter the world of disease it's really hard to look at life (or death) the same way again.  

So, for all you disease detectives out there, we present this excellent HALI project resource: the Wildlife Health Handbook: Recognizing, Investigating, and Reporting Diseases of Concern for Wildlife Conservation and Human Health.   This guide is perfect for you or your loved ones - if you're the kind of folks who stumble upon sick or dead wildlife, you just happen to work in a wildlife related field, or are interested in teaching folks about wildlife epidemiology and infectious disease risk.  

Check it out and let us know what you think, this handbook is supposed to be interactive - we even developed some excellent case studies to put you right in the thick of some crazy situations (rabid dogs and hyenas anyone?).  For our East African friends, we even have a version in Kiswahli.  Soma!  Thanks to the US Fish and Wildlife Service Wildlife Without Borders project for supporting this initiative, along with the Tanzania National Parks and MBOMIPA community game scouts who actually do stumble upon dead wildlife and need to know this stuff.