Batmen at Chita

HALI's now famous Dr. Popo (Zikankuba Sijali, the bat doctor), Chris Kilonzo, and our newly minted One Health Officer, Alphonce Msigwa have been hard at work scoping sites and sampling wildlife as part of HALI's zoonotic disease investigations for our PREDICT and viral sharing between human and animal populations projects.  They've been sending us field updates on a pretty regular basis over WhatsApp, which is proving to be a great tool for real-time situational awareness. Plus with that hardcore encryption it even passes HIPAA standards so is certified secure for protecting the privacy of our stakeholders and research participants.  

One of the team's latest updates came from Chita, a small village in the Udzungwa Mountains area of Tanzania where our team has been working with a local health clinic to sample patients with febrile illnesses to find out if there are fevers of unknown origin that may be zoonotic and potentially caused by viruses transmitted by wildlife like bats that often roost in people's homes or from monkeys in local forests where people frequently go to hunt, gather, and spend time. Who doesn't love a forest?  

I scraped the pics in this slideshow from our WhatsApp feed and added Zika's captions along with a few of my own for clarity to highlight one day in the life of this bat sampling crew, this time working in a village setting targeting micro bats that roost in the roofs of homes and prove to be quite a nuisance for the Chita residents. Thanks to Zika and our One Health Officer's efforts, the HALI team has been doing a good job sticking up for bats and promoting conservation for the ecosystem services they provide (eating insects and mosquitoes a huge one in an endemic malaria zone). But there is certainly a lot of work to be done to mitigate the risks for disease transmission, even some easy fixes like low cost improvements to homes to prevent the bats from moving in and taking up residence by adding screens and repairing ceiling panels. But low cost is not no cost, so until there is a Chita Champion the HALI team will keep working with the community on zoonotic disease outreach and prevention ideas.

 

PREDICT’s Ethiopia Team Learns Bat Sampling in Tanzania

In East Africa, HALI is helping partners from Addis Ababa University, the implementing partner for the PREDICT project in Ethiopia, learn safe capture and sampling of bats as part of a growing network of African scientists working to improve detection and prevention of emerging pandemic threats. The slideshow below gives a great look at the training: 

The PREDICT Ethiopia team met Zikankuba Sijalia, HALI's PREDICT project coordinator, at a recent global meeting and plans were made to bring the Ethiopian team to Tanzania to learn from Dr. Popo himself (the bat doctor, Zika's superhero name), who is quickly becoming one of the premier bat experts in the East Africa region. 

HALI's project scientist Chris Kilonzo took some amazing photos of the first day of training, conducted in Morogoro, Tanzania at a fruit bat roosting site in trees near the campus of Sokoine University, one of the sites the team is surveying as part of HALI's Viral Sharing project.

The team will continue to work with their new Ethiopian friends on bat and non-human primate sampling in the Udzungwa Mountains over the next few weeks. According to the HALI team, the Ethiopian scientists are a quick study and after only a few days in Tanzania are already mastering the skills and techniques for bat surveillance. Back home in Ethiopia, the Addis Ababa team will use these newly acquired skills in surveillance activities targeting bats as potential hosts for MERS Coronavirus and other potentially zoonotic viruses. 

Look out for more news on Dr. Popo and the HALI team soon as field activities ramp up!

Photos by Chris Kilonzo. Story by David Wolking. 

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)

 

 

Partners in Wildlife Health

The HALI team works with Ruaha National Park veterinarians to safely restrain an adult giraffe for sampling.  Giraffes in the park have been suffering from a skin disease, leading to a partnership between the park, HALI, and Sokoine University to identify the cause of the disease and intervention options. (Photo by Goodluck Paul)

The HALI team works with Ruaha National Park veterinarians to safely restrain an adult giraffe for sampling.  Giraffes in the park have been suffering from a skin disease, leading to a partnership between the park, HALI, and Sokoine University to identify the cause of the disease and intervention options. (Photo by Goodluck Paul)

HALI Partnerships with the Tanzania Wildlife Research Institute and National Parks

- Goodluck Paul and David Wolking

HALI is actively collaborating with Ruaha National Park (RUNAPA) and the Tanzania Wildlife Research Institute (TAWIRI) on several wildlife disease surveillance and investigation activities.

In May 2013, HALI project veterinarians, including project leads Dr. Jonna Mazet and Professor Rudovick Kazwala, were invited by RUNAPA to participate in a giraffe immobilization exercise to collect samples for an investigation into an emerging skin disease impacting giraffe herd health at the park.  In collaboration with RUNAPA veterinarians, Serengeti National Park veterinarians and other staff from the Sokoine University of Agriculture (SUA), the team safely immobilized 16 giraffes, and samples were sent to SUA for laboratory investigation.  Once the samples are analyzed, results will be shared with the park staff, and options for skin disease intervention will be carefully considered. 

We were able to document the immobilization event in our slide show (see Twiga Take-Down).  It is no small feat to safely inject drugs and guide Earth’s tallest terrestrial animal to ground-level for sampling, and even more difficult to get them back on their feet again, but the team did an excellent job ensuring no giraffes were injured, and that all animals safely recovered and returned to their lives browsing on twigs and leaves from tops of acacia trees, ruminating on life, necking, and tending to young calves.

What’s on the table now?

This month in northern Tanzania, HALI’s PREDICT project is training TAWIRI wildlife veterinarians in the safe capture, handling and sampling of small mammals like bats in the Tanga and Arusha regions.  PREDICT is investigating bats as a potential animal host species for zoonotic diseases, and is sampling bat colonies and roosting sites throughout Tanzania. 

Later this year, in mid or late September, HALI is planning another collaborative activity with Ruaha National Park and TAWIRI to conduct an aerial and ground survey of buffalo populations in the southern part of the Park.  These surveys help the park better understand the buffalo population and herd health, and assist in park wildlife management plans.

Future collaborations?

HALI looks forward to fostering other collaborations and sharing project experience on disease surveillance, animal handling, and investigations into emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases throughout the country.  We hope these partnerships are just the beginning, and that we continue to join forces with the National Parks, TAWIRI and others to better understand disease and improve health at the wildlife-human-livestock and environmental interfaces in Tanzania.

 

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.

 

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.