Navigating Lemur Conservation in Madagascar

When I stepped onto the plane to Madagascar, I had no idea what to expect. Expanding Horizons has sent students on a wide variety of experiences, but never to this location. It is sometimes said that the only constant when working with wildlife is uncertainty; for me, that was an understatement.

I arrived in the capital city of Antananarivo with a definitive plan, developed along with Dr. Patricia Wright, primatologist and anthropologist from Stony Brook University. I would spend the first week at Centre ValBio, the research station founded by Dr. Wright in the continuous rainforest, observing and taking behavioral data on the lemurs that reside in Ranomafana National Park. Then, a team of Centre ValBio research technicians and I would travel to a remote area of forest fragments, dart and capture a group of greater bamboo lemurs, take biological samples for research purposes, and translocate the group of lemurs into the protected pristine rainforest of Ranomafana National Park. This project had three different goals. The first was a rescue mission for the threatened lemurs in the fragmented forest. The second was to collect data on this critically endangered and relatively unstudied species. The last goal was to increase genetic diversity in greater bamboo lemurs by introducing a new population to the two lemurs already in Ranomafana National Park. The rest of my summer would be spent processing samples and monitoring the group of lemurs as they adapted to their new environment, or so I thought.

Unfortunately, the trip to the fragmented forest was severely delayed, but I made the most of that time by working closely with my team in the design and management of the project and looking for ways to improve it. I met with the regional head of Malagasy National Parks, park rangers, and environmental administrators where we discussed the future of the national park in lemur conservation. At the research station I worked with researchers, veterinarians, and even botanists, both local and international, to assimilate their expertise into this lemur conservation project.

In the process of researching and networking, the scope of the project began to grow. We found funding for a humanitarian team to build a dam for the local villages near our target population and the botanists joined our team to examine the possibility of reconnecting the forest fragments with the continuous forest. We consulted the experts around us to figure out how to take full advantage of a single capture event by collecting a wide array of samples from each lemur. Together we set up a plan to establish long-term preliminary data prior to the translocation.

The overall goals of the project remained the same, but the timeline was elongated and incorporated more disciplines. Instead of doing the capture with sample collection and translocation all in one trip, an initial team would capture, sample, radio collar, and release the lemurs back into the fragmented forest. Then a team of technicians from the research station would remain at the site for at least five months to gather behavioral, nutritional, and hormonal data. In the future, once sufficient data is collected and it is deemed safe to transport the lemurs, another expedition will embark to capture the lemurs for translocation to the safety of Ranomafana National Park.

While I waited for the initial team to embark, I was lucky enough to join a different project where I operated small mammal traps to gather morphometric data on mouse lemurs and chased ring-tailed lemurs through the forests to collect fecal samples. This expedition took me to the undisturbed and utterly breathtaking Lost Rainforest of Crystal Mountain, which is even more Indiana Jones-esque than the name implies, but that is a story for another time.

After returning from the Lost Rainforest, I had a quick turnaround before embarking on my own team’s expedition to capture a group of greater bamboo lemurs. The journey was wrought with obstacles, both literal and metaphorical. These included driving three days over one of the worst roads in the world where the winches on our vehicles were exercised often, being stuck for five days in a hotel while we waited for a government official to send a single email that would allow us to progress, and almost being turned away by the villagers upon arrival to the fragmented forests. However, once we finally established our camp around the clay church in the village, we wasted no time in jumping into action. From the daily river crossings that required full pants removal to the herds of cattle that stumbled through our processing setup, nothing could stop us once we found our momentum. Our blowdart experts were bringing us lemurs faster than we could process them and we had a queue of lemurs patiently waiting their turn. Our processing team consisted of three vets (two from Germany and one from Madagascar), one parasitologist from the US, and myself and it only took us a couple of lemurs to become a well-oiled machine. Not only did we monitor anesthesia and conduct physical exams, but we also took a wide variety of samples including blood, hair, feces, swabs from every orifice, parasites, morphometrics, and even breath. In just two and a half days, we darted and processed 12 greater bamboo lemurs and it was glorious.

It was extremely fun and rewarding to work with the lemurs and to safely release them back into the forest, but what made the experience truly special was that we were actively championing the conservation of a critically endangered species. I hope that I am able to return to Madagascar next year to continue my work on the translocation of the lemurs, but even if I am unable to return, this past summer in Madagascar has been an extraordinary experience that I will never forget. As the Malagasy say, olombelona tsi akoho!


ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Bekah Weatherington, class of 2021, is a Cornell DVM student from San Diego, CA. She has received her B.S. in biology and M.S. in biomedical sciences from Colorado State University. Bekah is interested in how veterinary medicine can be used as a tool in wildlife conservation. Her special interests include rehabilitation, aquatic species, and international field work.

Investigation of Peste des Petits Ruminants Virus in Chitwan, Nepal

Sampling goats in the local village of Lothar.

Gazing up through the foliage for the source of the growing sound, we find a group of Rhesus macaques, all seemingly distressed and aware of a presence in the jungle unknown to us. Suddenly, the reason for the commotion becomes starkly apparent. A full grown leopard darts down from its post in a nearby tree, swiftly landing on the jungle floor; it flees the scene in a matter of seconds. With our judgment slightly impaired from the recent spike in adrenaline and euphoria, we approach the tree to get a closer look. This movement spooks yet another leopard who races off on the same path. Unable to find our words, my guides and I exchange hugs and high fives in response to the amazing encounter we just experienced. This was thirty minutes into a four day trek of Chitwan National Park, Nepal.

Wild Bengal tiger spotted at a watering hole in Chitwan National Park.

I considered myself inordinately lucky to have spotted such rare wildlife on my first day. While this is true, Chitwan National Park is a haven of biodiversity, and offers one of the best opportunities in the world to see magnificent macrofauna, such as wild Bengal Tigers, Leopards, and Indian Rhinoceroses to name a few. Not only do these animals reside in the park, but they are flourishing and growing in number. In fact, the park has had to acquire more land to accommodate their growing tiger population, which was recently measured at 235 individuals. The success of the park in their anti-poaching regime represents an exemplary story in conservation. It stems from a partnership between the government, local communities and NGOs. Much of the forests bordering the parks have been granted to the surrounding communities, where the members act as rangers and stewards of their land. In concert with local villages, army presence throughout the park has also proven to be immensely effective in mitigating poaching. The park service deservedly boasts that they have been poaching free of tigers and rhinos since 2011.

Despite these incredible gains, the health of wildlife in this region of southern Nepal is not entirely secure. Most notably, transmission of pathogens from domestic livestock to wildlife has proven particularly insidious. Rhinos and elephants have been confirmed dead from tuberculosis, and canine distemper virus remains a looming threat for large cats. With growing human and livestock populations in the buffer zone villages, the threat to wildlife is increasingly imminent. This is why I did my Expanding Horizons Project here.

The focus of my research was to uncover the prevalence of Peste des Petits Ruminants Virus (PPRV) in domestic goat herds of five villages bordering the national park, and from this data, try and make connections between livestock health and risk of transmission to wildlife. PPRV is a disease of immense global importance, and is responsible for $2.1 billion USD in economic losses each year. In Africa, the Middle East and Asia, small holder farmers are often left to bear the brunt of the effects, since their livelihoods are inextricably linked to the health of their livestock.

Receiving the classic Nepali award (Token of Love) after presenting my research at the local Veterinary School.

Through the invaluable aid of my Nepali partners, I was able to sample 218 domestic goats from 64 different households across five villages. For each household, we also conducted a questionnaire to gain information on husbandry, grazing patterns, and previous clinical signs. By pairing this data with the ELISA results from the goat serum, I was able to gather a much clearer picture of the local farming practices and risk factors for PPRV.  The most interesting finding from my work was the link between grazing practices and PPRV prevalence. For villages that communaly grazed, where individuals would take their animals to one or two locations in the forest or national park, PPRV rates showed 38%. However, villages that practiced isolated grazing, in which they would cut grass from the jungle and feed their goats on their property, had a prevalence of 18%. While there is inherently a level of error in my data due to imperfect sampling conditions, bias, and a relatively low sample number, this still remains a striking connection.

My time spent in Nepal was undoubtedly my most edifying experience to date. Not only did I get the opportunity to craft and execute a project in a field of veterinary medicine that I’m deeply passionate about, but I was also able to immerse myself in Nepali culture. All of my partners were local Nepali from the Chitwan region, and as a result, I gained practice in partnership and collaboration in an entirely different cultural context.

I returned from Nepal exhausted, but deeply moved, and with a clearer sense of direction and values. I am fervently committed to continue developing my skills, so that I can effectively promote wildlife health and conservation.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Born and raised in the beautiful rollings hills outside Charlottesville, Virginia, Daniel Foley (class of 2021) attended UVA for his undergraduate.  He was drawn to the Cornell College of Veterinary Medicine by the university’s opportunities and education in Wildlife Health and Conservation Medicine.  He is particularly passionate about conservation efforts in the interface between livestock and wildlife, and how such issues impact human health and the management of ecosystem resources.

Breeding Livestock Guard Dogs and Protecting Cheetahs

My name is Zachary Dvornicky-Raymond, and I’m a member of the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine’s class of 2019. As far back as I can remember, I have dreamed of working with wildlife and having a lasting impact on global conservation. The Expanding Horizons program gave me the opportunity to take my first steps toward fulfilling my dream.

I spent the summer of 2016 at the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF), based outside of Otjiwarongo, Namibia. The CCF was founded by Dr. Laurie Marker in 1990, with the goal of saving the cheetah from extinction through a multifaceted approach to conservation. Habitat loss and fragmentation, and declining prey availability, have resulted in cheetahs predating on livestock and entering into human-wildlife conflict situations with farmers.

The Livestock Guard Dog Project is a unique approach to human-wildlife conflict mitigation, whereby Anatolian Shepherd/Kangal dogs are bred and raised amongst livestock, and then placed at farms throughout Namibia. Through their presence and loud bark, the dogs reduce livestock predation by 80-100% in the herds where they are placed. By reducing predation, the program provides security for the farmer’s livestock herd, and reduces retaliatory killings, mostly against cheetahs.

The Livestock Guard Dog Project has been extremely successful in the past, not only in reducing cheetah mortalities, but also in improving the outlook that local communities have toward cheetahs. Since 1994, over 450 dogs have been placed in farms throughout Namibia. However, the program has also encountered reproductive setbacks within the breeding colony. In short, they experienced multiple failed breeding attempts and whelping complications. The goal of my project was to try to identify and solve those problems using what I learned through the DVM curriculum, combined with knowledge I had gained from working on canine reproductive research at Cornell.

Throughout my time in Namibia, I gained first-hand experience working in conservation. I worked and talked with local farmers to learn about their lives, experiences, and concerns; I observed, assisted with, and conducted veterinary procedures on numerous wild and domestic species; I learned about aspects of the veterinary medical profession that I had no idea even existed. And, as part of a team, I produced results that have truly made a difference. Our work solved many of the problems that the LSGD program was encountering and, as a testament to our success, multiple litters have been born since I left.  We truly made a difference that summer, and the effects of my work will far outlast my time at CCF – and that fact alone makes my experience worthwhile. I came in expecting the problem to be solely due to medical anomalies, but what I quickly realized is that we also had to make management and communication adjustments to truly benefit the program. We not only pinpointed the root of many of the medical problems that they were encountering, but through a collaborative effort, we created new management protocols for the breeding colony.

Looking back on that summer, specifically to the very beginning, I realize that I had high aspirations for the outcome of my trip. I am beyond pleased to write that my expectations were far exceeded. Seeing the research center and meeting the staff for the first time was nothing short of surreal. Although I had seen plenty of photos and read extensively about the work being done there, it paled in comparison to the reality. I quickly came to realize that the staff and veterinarians working with the Livestock Guard Dog Project were as excited for my project as I was, and that we had so much to teach each other. So we did.

Much of my time in the first few weeks was spent learning the ins and outs of operations at CCF. I worked extensively with the veterinarians on all of the animals at the center, from big cats to guard dogs, from goat kids to horses. The Livestock Guard Dog manager and I spent hours going through the history of the program, the setbacks they had encountered, the improvements that have been made to the program, and what we needed to accomplish together. It was a big task, but we were up to the challenge.

One of my favorite lessons from this experience was learning the role of a veterinarian within a team. All of the care provided to the animals, whether goats, dogs, or cheetahs, required collaboration between husbandry staff, veterinarians, and administration. The veterinarians relied on the husbandry staff for surveillance, monitoring, and history. After all, the husbandry staff knew these animals more than anyone else at the center. I learned quickly how important it was to listen to the team, given how diverse the areas of expertise were within the group.

When I visited local farms, where human-wildlife conflict was a reality, my primary role was again to listen and learn. By doing so, I gained a much better idea of how to approach these issues than I would have if I had just rushed in and tried to fix them alone. Even then, it took creativity and persistence to find answers and every person played a part, which was especially important when theory did not match practice.

This is perhaps the most important thing that I took from my experience: that any initiative in conservation, community outreach, conflict-remediation, or whatever the task may be, requires full buy-in, understanding, and effort from every person involved. A program achieves the greatest success only through the combined expertise of the farmers, the researchers/staff, the management, and the veterinarians. After all, conservation is just as much about improving human lives as it is about protecting and preserving the lives of animals.

My experience in Namibia came at the perfect time in my life, and was without a doubt the most personally fulfilling and inspiring journey I have been on. This opportunity solidified my resolve to pursue conservation medicine as a lifelong career. There are many problems that face our world and, although few of them can be easily solved, I believe that change can occur through collaboration and multifaceted approaches aimed at improving the lives of humans and animals together. Thank you to the Expanding Horizons program, to Cornell University, to the Cheetah Conservation Fund, to the Silent Heroes Foundation, and to everyone who supported me in making this trip possible. I look forward to completing veterinary school, and to the long journey that follows thereafter.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Zack is a third-year veterinary student from Watkins Glen, NY. He received his Bachelor of Science degree from Cornell University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences in 2015, with a double major in Biology and Animal Science. He is interested in the One Health approach to conservation medicine. In his future, he plans to use his veterinary training to find multidisciplinary approaches to international conservation that are sustainable and impactful. He is passionate about finding ways to preserve, protect, and promote our natural world by improving the health of humans and animals alike.

The Realities of Infectious Disease Research in the Field

Thanks to funding from Expanding Horizons, this summer I partnered with Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH) to conduct research in Queen Elizabeth National Park (QENP). CTPH is a non-profit non-governmental organization, focused on improving the health of animals and people around protected areas in Africa while also advancing initiatives in wildlife conservation. Put more simply, it addresses the reality that wildlife conservation cannot occur without simultaneous partnership with humans whose livelihoods are closely intertwined with, and often dependent on, the same resources that endangered wild animals need. In my opinion, one of the most interesting problems in wildlife conservation is how to make conservation a priority for everyone. Dr. Gladys Kalema Zikusoka, one of the founders of CTPH and the first wildlife veterinarian for the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA), was motivated to address this need. Since it was founded in 2002, CTPH has implemented public health programs in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, QENP, Mount Elgon, and other protected areas in Uganda. CTPH has worked in communities with significant interaction with wildlife, training Conservation Community Animal Health Workers to assist researchers in sampling animals and to report signs of disease outbreaks to UWA.

Buffalo (red box) grazing in close proximity to cattle.

My objective for this summer was to conduct research on the prevalence of brucellosis and tuberculosis, both zoonotic diseases with the potential to infect humans, in African buffalo and cattle in communities around QENP. Three different villages around QENP were chosen based on disease prevalence of free range cattle and proximity to the national park. In a study published by Dr. Gladys and other researchers in 2005, the prevalence of Mycoplasma bovis and Brucella abortus was 22% and 2%, respectively. The first survey of bovine tuberculosis in QENP in 1960, which was referenced in Dr. Gladys’ study, concluded that the disease had originated in cattle and spread to buffalo. Infected buffalo were only found in areas of the park close to villages with cattle that were positive for tuberculosis. Since this wildlife reservoir has been established, the challenge now is to eradicate the disease in both populations. My research consisted of conducting surveys of pastoralists, and sampling blood from cattle to perform laboratory tests for the infectious diseases. Having worked in research laboratories throughout my undergraduate career, it was easy for me to learn the procedure for the brucellosis serum agglutination test. However, it was much more fulfilling to conduct surveys because I learned so much about common practices in raising cattle outside the United States, perceptions of foreign researchers, and how it is extremely challenging to control all the variables when conducting research in the field.

To conduct surveys, I woke up at 5:30 am to drive to villages before the cattle were led, by herdsmen, into QENP to graze for the day. It was necessary for the cattle to leave so early in order to begin feeding before the heat of the day reached its peak. Our team once drove over five miles into QENP to chase after a specific group of cattle to sample. That journey was a testament to how much energy the cattle had to expend to find food, relative to the poor nutrition they received from the dry, brittle, and overgrazed grass.

Ugandan kob grazing with domestic cattle.

In a moment that made the fatigue from chasing cattle worthwhile, I spotted a buffalo and a few Ugandan Kob mingling with the cattle. Just as there are no boundaries between wildlife and livestock, there are no boundaries between livestock and humans in the village. If a buffalo infected with Brucella abortus were to have an abortion in QENP, and a grazing cow ingested the placenta or vaginal discharges, the infection could be passed to the domestic cattle. A human that drank raw milk from an infected cattle could then become infected, as well. The challenge of developing boundaries of QENP around and within pre-existing communities without allocating grazing land is there there are insufficient natural resources. Cattle cannot rely solely on grazing within the village. While the government punishes people for grazing cattle in QENP, it does not provide alternative methods to feed cattle that are affordable. Nutrition is essential because cattle or buffalo that do not receive enough nutrition from grazing have a less robust immune system to respond to and eliminate infection.

Before beginning my research, I traveled to each village and met each village leader. The village leader is an elected individual who holds the most political influence within the village. Dr. Kellen, a Ugandan wildlife veterinarian, translated information about CTPH, the research project, and what we would need. After receiving support from all three village leaders, we traveled from house to house with a local to facilitate introductions.

Despite the support of the village leaders, I immediately ran into opposition from community members. At the first house, before we had finished communicating the premise of our research, a villager interjected to say that many researchers in the past had come, collected samples from his cattle and asked him questions, but none had distributed any results or provided compensation. This theme was repeated throughout houses in all three villages. There were also accounts of researchers injecting vaccines around the tail-head of cattle and causing necrosis of the entire tail. Anyone who assumed that we were researchers from Ugandan Wildlife Authority refused to talk to us or allow us to sample their cattle. It was concerning to see that the governmental body responsible for protecting wildlife did not seem to have the support of the people. UWA charges entrance fees for almost all the protected areas in Uganda, for many safari and animal tracking opportunities, and for permits to conduct research on animals in Uganda. However, only a small percentage of this income is given to the communities around the national parks, provided that the people have demonstrated certain initiatives toward advancing wildlife conservation.

Once we explained that we were with Conservation Through Public Health, an independently-run, Ugandan-based organization with a history of disseminating results back to communities, the locals became much more receptive to participating in our research. I surveyed 51 pastoralists and sampled 97 cattle. Through the surveys,  I was able to analyze the risk factors, such as handling of newborn calves, slaughtering of cattle, and type of milk consumed, that could lead people to brucellosis infection. I learned that the local name for brucellosis was omusuja gwente, which translates to malaria of cows. Wildlife conservation will only succeed with teamwork from multiple different sectors, and without the pastoralists reporting infectious disease outbreaks to veterinarians and UWA, a significant player in disease detection would be lost.

As a result of the surveys, I identified certain practices that places people at risk for brucellosis transmitted from cattle, including close contact with newborn calves, and leaving aborted calves in the fields or feeding them to other animals. Thirty-nine percent of respondents had observed at least 3 clinical signs of brucellosis in their cattle (abortion, stillbirth, weak calf, retained placenta, orchitis/epididymitis). From the serum agglutination test for brucellosis, I determined that there was 0% prevalence of B. abortus in the cattle that were sampled. While this is positive preliminary data, more in depth investigation should and will be conducted to whether this is the true prevalence.

As a pre-veterinary student, a professor encouraged me to pursue both wildlife and livestock interests because of the need for veterinarians in developing nations. It was a concept that was very new to me then, but resonates with me now. My initial plans for darting and sampling buffalo for my project were canceled due to numerous bureaucratic issues, but I learned that wildlife veterinary medicine isn’t usually chasing outbreaks or performing surgeries. I have a lot more to learn and explore, but I am very glad to have journeyed to Uganda to get a glimpse of what is possible in the years to come.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Amy Trey is a third year veterinary student from Bayside, NY, interested in infectious diseases and the wildlife-livestock disease interface. She graduated from Duke University in 2015 with a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry. Currently, she is a member of the Cornell chapter of AABP, a volunteer at the Cornell Wildlife Health Center, and an emergency surgery technician at the Large Animal hospital.

The Elephant Diaries, Part 4: Community Cooperation

A wizened, bespectacled man sells bananas by the bushel at a street stall. Across the road, several dozens of people file into a nondescript building. This is where the local government holds town meetings. Today is a special occasion, as the county sheriff has organized a day-long series of meetings, inviting the elephant veterinarians (and the vet student interning with them—yours truly) to preside on this conference. Also in attendance were owners and mahouts representing 30 different elephant camps throughout the province of Chiang Mai.

The meeting agenda was split into different sessions. The morning was dedicated to announcements from the council committee on Chiang Mai’s expectations, standards, and responsibilities bestowed upon its elephant camp owners. The afternoon session was an informative presentation by the elephant vets on EEHV (Elephant Endotheliotropic Herpesvirus). The vets educated the mahouts and owners present on what clinical signs to look for, delineated the virus’ pathological progression, and emphasized the importance of early detection of this serious disease.

After a brief tea break, the vets took the stage once more to discuss the newly formed Chiang Mai Elephant Alliance. The objectives of this organizational body were described as combating both “internal” and “external threats.” The former refers to disease and other risks to animal health, whereas the latter refers to animal rights—not to be confused with animal welfare—activist groups who propagate misinformation and tend to particularly defame mahouts.

The final session was conducted by representatives of a tunnel corporation to discuss a recently approved irrigation project. Beginning next week, they would commence an underground bombing protocol to create a tunnel that would connect two neighboring rivers. Doing so would improve water supply to Chiang Mai—a measure that the townspeople deemed necessary and beneficial.

According to the construction company, the tunnel was projected for completion in two to three years. The initial stage involved creating the actual opening. To achieve that, there would be four months of bombing, once a day, with the bombs gradually increasing in strength. All this talk of explosives conjured graphic war images, but I was assured that the bombs would be detonated at a safe depth. There were no risks of crumbling buildings, landslides, or the earth splitting open beneath us. The bomb site would be well-contained and manifest only as an audible boom and vibrations in the ground—seismic signals that elephants have been postulated to detect and communicate with.

While an enhanced irrigation system that will benefit the people is something to be celebrated, one cannot neglect the hundreds of elephants who also happen to reside in that same locale. Fortunately, that’s precisely why the town council summoned this meeting. The committee recruited prominent members of the veterinary community to weigh in on this very issue: the welfare of the elephants.

In camps located near the bombing site, the vets were tasked with monitoring the elephants at the time of explosion. Given the sensitivity of these elephants to seismic waves, the committee was concerned about the animals’ well-being during the course of this long-term irrigation project. Behaviors we had to watch out for included loud trumpeting, slamming of the trunk on the ground, and stampeding—which would endanger the mahouts and their families living on the camp site. Chronic side effects from months of bombing could potentially develop, such as elevated cortisol (stress) levels and the cessation of eating/drinking. Since this project is ongoing, we have yet to see if any serious chronic health issues materialize. From the bomb trials conducted so far, the only responses we witnessed from the elephants were brief pauses followed by the resumption of eating—nothing concerning!

I was touched that the tunnel corporation entrusted the veterinarians with such consideration and responsibility, making sure we were present at each detonation to observe the elephants’ demeanors. Stories like these stand in such contrast to the age-old tale of “Big Business” pursuing commercial developments at the expense of—and lack of regard for—wildlife and the environment. The inclusivity, thoughtfulness, and involvement of multiple parties (e.g. mahouts, camp owners, vets, council members, town residents, construction workers) reflect how the exemplary members of the Chiang Mai community assembled to address the needs of various stakeholders while still supporting elephant welfare.

This post is written by Elvina Yau and was originally published on her WordPress blog, Elvina the Explorer, on July 28, 2017.

Read Part 1 of the Elephant Diaries here.

Read Part 2 of the Elephant Diaries here.

Read Part 3 of The Elephant Diaries here.

The Elephant Diaries, Part 3: Client Conflict

The office phone rings shrilly. An elephant camp two hours away is phoning in for a clinical appointment. The patient: a 1.5 year-old female baby elephant with bouts of diarrhea. While this chief complaint may not seem very urgent for the typical animal, elephant veterinarians treat it as an emergency case. Both the elephant’s young age and clinical sign of diarrhea point to the likelihood of EEHV (Elephant Endotheliotropic Herpesvirus).

After loading up our mobile clinic van and driving across precarious terrain, we arrived on site at the elephant camp. We were brought to the sick baby elephant and conducted a physical examination, which produced other findings such as facial edema, depression, and hemorrhagic stool. These signs further affirmed the veterinarian’s diagnostic hunch.

Since elephant calves with EEHV can often die within 48 hours of the disease’s onset, the vet urged the camp owner to bring the elephant to the Thai Elephant Conservation Center (TECC) to receive critical care. Located in Lampang, TECC is a government-owned hospital that offers free veterinary services to elephants. Given the cultural reverence surrounding the elephant, the Thai government covers these expenses to provide quality medical treatment to the country’s cherished giants.

Surprisingly, the owner and mahout declined. Due to the patient’s young age, the mother would have to be transported along with her baby to the hospital in Lampang. Weaning does not occur until 2.5-3 years of age, and the staff cited the baby’s potential separation anxiety and stress during transportation as reasons against hospital care. Furthermore, they believed the mother may be pregnant and were concerned that transporting her could pose a risk to the fetus. However, the vet remarked that she had not yet started her next ovulation cycle since giving birth to this current baby, making pregnancy unlikely.

Another complication arose from the camp’s “no chain, no hook” policy—tools that, when used appropriately, are actually necessary for training the elephants to position themselves and be compliant for certain medical procedures. For example, the elephants couldn’t respond to a mahout’s command to lift a limb for foot inspection, stay still for an injection, or open their mouths for a dental exam, complicating our ability to deliver basic care. The lack of training would also pose difficulties in getting the baby and mother to willingly walk into the hospital truck destined for Lampang.

While acknowledging these logistical concerns, the vet continued to stress how time-sensitive the patient’s impending treatment was. Despite his insistence on administering anti-viral therapy at TECC, the camp owner again dismissed the option. He said they wanted to wait and monitor the baby longer, promising to call us the next day with any updates.

The camp had only been around for several years and had only experienced one baby elephant death so far. They had also decided to forgo hospital treatment for that patient, and the cause of death—surely enough—was EEHV. I’m not sure how many baby elephants have to become severely ill for the message to truly hit home with the staff. Furthermore, finances are a common and understandable reason why owners may not proceed with certain treatment options for their animals. However, in this situation, the medical bills would be entirely paid for by the government. Additionally, from a business standpoint, the camp risks losing 1 million Thai baht if the baby elephant dies. Although we mentioned these details to the staff, they were still unwilling to seek hospital care.

I began to feel crestfallen, gazing at the baby elephant as the veterinarian and camp staff continued to debate the issue. The escalating clash of viewpoints—though calmly spoken—made me rather anxious as her chances of survival were being heavily discussed behind me. It was heartbreaking knowing that the baby elephant I once saw gleefully slip and slide in the muddy river, munch on sugarcane stalks with reckless abandon, and toot out trumpet noises through her trunk, I may not see again.

While the vet is the ultimate advocate for the animal, we must also respect the owner’s final decision. Before the empty truck headed back for Lampang, the vet gave some multivitamins to the baby that would help stimulate her immune response. He also instructed that she be temporarily separated from visiting tourists, which may help reduce stress levels that would otherwise not aid her recovery from the suspected virus. We thanked the staff for their time and for calling our mobile clinic to examine their baby elephant, then scheduled a follow-up appointment.

Upon our second visit, we were relieved to find that the baby had been situated away from the tourists and actually appeared better—a rare finding given the rapid downfall of most EEHV cases. The results from her second physical exam improved, as she was less depressed, had better appetite, and exhibited increased ambulation and play behavior. The camp staff also expressed a change of heart and started a chain training protocol with the baby to facilitate any medical procedures she may need to undergo in the future.

What began as client conflict eventually crystallized into compromise. I admired the veterinarian’s composure despite the various frustrations. His persistence, client education on EEHV, and alternative remedies—tempered with respect towards the owner’s stance—contributed in turning a challenging client situation into an instance of communication and conflict management skills.

Read Part 1 of the Elephant Diaries here.

Read Part 2 of the Elephant Diaries here.

This post is written by Elvina Yau and was originally published on her WordPress blog, Elvina the Explorer, on July 26, 2017.

 

Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation in Chillán, Chile

The Andean Condor (Vultur gryphus), is one of the largest flying birds in the world, with a wingspan of around 10 feet. This species is the national bird of Chile and has a near threatened conservation status since its population numbers have been in decline due to habitat loss, consuming contaminated carcasses, and hunting.

Veterinary student Lauren Johnson assists with anesthesia of a young puma.

My name is Lauren Johnson, and I am a member of the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine class of 2020. This past summer, with support from Cornell’s Expanding Horizons program, I spent 10 weeks at the University of Concepción in Chillán, Chile. Chillán is a small city, 4 hours south of Santiago, with a traditional open-air market downtown and a picturesque countryside framed by views of mountain ranges and volcanoes. There, I worked with Chilean veterinarians to research milk quality at dairy farms in the region. While my main goal in Chile was to work with cows, I was excited to learn that the university had a wildlife clinic, since during the academic year at Cornell I work as a student technician at the Janet L. Swanson Wildlife Health Center.

The University of Concepción’s Center for the Rescue and Rehabilitation of Wildlife provides medical care and rehabilitation for native Chilean wildlife, with the end goal of releasing the animals back into the wild. The center is small, but has an indoor room with a few cages for patients and six large outdoor cages that allow birds of prey to fly and provide enough space for large mammals like foxes. Most animals are brought to the center by the Chilean government’s Agricultural and Livestock Service (which is also in charge of wildlife and conservation). The most common presenting complaint in patients is fractures due to vehicular trauma.

 

An Austral pygmy owl.

The center is mainly staffed by student volunteers. Each day, a team of a few students signs up to take care of the animals by preparing food, cleaning cages, and administering medications. Thanks to the coordinators of the center, I was able to join the Chilean vet students in taking care of the patients. This gave me a wonderful opportunity to meet some of Chile’s wildlife up-close. I cut up chicken necks for a Magellanic Horned Owl (Bubo magellanicus), a close relative of the Great-Horned Owl we often see at the Cornell wildlife clinic. I dug worms out of the ground for a Southern Lapwing (Vanellus chilensis), a shorebird that is commonly found on fields throughout the countryside and has a bright red spur on each wing used for fighting. I gave medication to an Austral Pygmy Owl (Glaucidium nana) about the size of my hand. I checked on the Andean Condor (Vultur gryphus), which is one of the largest flying birds in the world with a wingspan of around 10 feet. This species is the national bird of Chile and has a near threatened conservation status since its population numbers have been in decline due to habitat loss, consuming contaminated carcasses, and hunting.  One of the most interesting patients was a young puma (Felis concolor) that had been hit by a car. Veterinarians performed surgery on the puma prior to my arrival in Chile, but I was able to assist in anesthesia monitoring for the re-check exam and radiographs to assess healing. After I left, the puma was moved to another rehabilitation center by Chile’s Agricultural and Livestock Service to be evaluated for release.

The pudú, a species of miniature deer native to Chile, grows to a maximum height of 1.5 feet.

In January 2017, wildfires raged across central Chile, destroying hundreds of thousands of acres. The area burned was about the size of the state of Delaware, and many injured wildlife were brought to the University of Concepción clinic. In part due to the recognition of the importance of the center during this crisis, the Chilean Ministry of the Environment recently awarded it a grant to promote environmental education and develop its facilities. One of my favorite patients at the wildlife center was a pudú (Pudu puda). These are a miniature species of deer that attain a maximum height of 1.5 feet. Like the Andean Condor, they are currently designated as a near threatened species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List. This individual was a victim of the wildfires, and due to burn injuries was determined to be non-releasable. The Chilean veterinary students working at the wildlife center were dedicated and hardworking, spending their free time on projects like rebuilding, improving, and enriching the animal cages, or planting trees nearby to provide a native food source for future pudú patients. I am excited to see what they will do with the award, and I hope that they continue to be recognized for their efforts.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Lauren Johnson is a second-year veterinary student. She graduated from Wellesley College in 2016 with a double major in Biology and Spanish. She works as a student technician at the Janet L. Swanson Wildlife Health Center at Cornell.

Challenges in Livestock, Wildlife, and Human Health in Communities near Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda

What: Megan Lee will be presenting on her experience working in Uganda through Expanding Horizons.  She will be making Ugandan curried potatoes, beans, rice, and chicken stew.  You can RSVP here.

When: Thursday, November 2, 6-7pm

Where: S1-222 in the vet school

EVENT: On The Wild Side: Navigating Conflict Between Private and Public Lion Conservation Interests at Antelope Park, Zimbabwe

Shanina Halbert will be giving an Expanding Horizons presentation on her experience in Zimbabwe.  Shanina will be making roasted squash and a traditional drink for the first 30 people.

When: Thursday, October 26 from 6-7 pm.

Where: S1-222, at the vet school

The Elephant Diaries, Part 2: Field Necropsy

A 50-year-old male elephant and his loving mahout were trekking on the outskirts of a camp site when suddenly, the elephant collapsed to his death. Thankfully, this incident did not occur in front of any visitors, but the mahout was devastated nevertheless.

Given the elephant’s unexpected death, both the mahout and the camp manager wanted answers by means of a necropsy. But when the animal weighs 8,000 pounds and his body lies motionless on a dirt path in the backwoods, how do we accomplish this? Clearly, this elephant was too large and heavy to transport back to the university’s necropsy lab to perform a postmortem examination. Thus, we packed all our equipment into the mobile clinic van and traveled nearly two hours to prepare for our on-site necropsy.

When we arrived, we saw three monks circled around the elephant in prayer. Platters of food were laid painstakingly on the ground, as the monks continued their intimate ceremony in a cloud of incense. This cultural custom involves blessing the deceased elephant in order to send its spirits into the sky. During this time, the mahout gave us a medical history of his elephant, who exhibited no clinical signs prior to his death.

The process of a field necropsy is a very laborious task. Since we had no leading hypotheses about the potential cause of death, we needed to conduct an especially thorough postmortem investigation and take multiple tissue samples from various organs. The procedure would surely take us upwards of 10 hours.

Before beginning the necropsy, we first had to scout out a burial site. Fortunately, we spotted a towering tree 15 feet away. We recruited two excavator trucks to commence digging at the ground underneath. The grave needed to be several meters deep so that the elephant’s remains could be contained in a non-biohazardous manner, unlikely to get uncovered and consumed by wandering pets or wild animals. As I started putting on personal protective equipment, metal claw hands began to scrape into a ground baked hard from the Thai sun.

As the trucks continued pounding into the dirt, a tractor arrived with several motorbikes in tow, bearing chains and tarps. The tarp was laid out on the ground, where we placed our tools and organized a makeshift instrument station on its surface. At the moment, the elephant was located under an intensely hot sun, 15 feet away from the grave still being dug beside the tree. In addition, his body was currently twisted due to the way he collapsed onto the ground. Somehow, we had to both relocate him next to his shaded burial site and re-position his body into proper lateral recumbency.

That’s where the long, thick chains came into play. The chains were tied around the elephant’s limbs at one end, hurled over the tree, then connected to the rears of the motorbikes and tractor at the other end, effectively fashioning a pulley system. In unison, the tractor and motorbikes revved their engines, slowly dragging the elephant’s body inch by inch. After a few minutes of hoisting the elephant along, the tractor’s engine suddenly broke down from the heavy load, at which point they brought in a separate heavy-duty vehicle and maneuvered its crane to help nudge the elephant forward as the motorbikes continued to pull.

Once the grave was dug and the elephant was finally placed in proper position, we were ready to begin the dissection. However, all the prep work itself took roughly four hours. As storm clouds loomed in the distance, the vets and pathologists promptly took their sharpened knives and began their investigation. Plastic rope was threaded through the rim of the elephant’s skin flap so it could be reflected as they sliced through the lateral fascia. As the dissection progressed, the chains were used once again to help lift the limbs for inspection and eventual removal from the elephant carcass.

Tissue samples were handed to me to be photographed, measured, and labeled. I diligently noted gross findings as they were hollered from the vets, who were knelt down in the disemboweled abdominal cavity as they extended their hands deep into the lungs and heart.

Midway, the necropsy became a race against time when a thunderstorm descended upon us. I peered up at the tree, debating whether standing beneath it would shelter me from the downpour or electrocute me from the lightning. The camp owner’s car was parked nearby, and we rummaged through his trunk to find some rain ponchos and mini beach umbrellas. I set up shop on a plot of soil away from the tree, taking refuge under the umbrella as I waited to log in our next tissue sample.

The entire team relentlessly continued to work their way through the elephant carcass. After emerging from the body completely soaked (and not just from the rain, mind you), the vets concluded they had obtained all the necessary samples. The elephant—considerably lighter after being compartmentalized—could now be moved more easily. The crane gently goaded the carcass into the grave and scooped up the previously exhumed dirt to bury its remains. Lastly, we covered the burial site with a layer of limestone powder to help maintain the pH of the soil after the body disintegrates.

Performing an elephant field necropsy is one of the wildest veterinary procedures I have ever experienced. It combines protocol and sheer creativity, is somewhat unorthodox, and requires a concerted effort from 25 people. When resources are limited, time is tight, and logistics are threatened by weather, you can count on veterinary ingenuity and teamwork to get the job done.

Read Part 1 of The Elephant Diaries Here.

Read Part 3 of The Elephant Diaries here.

This post is written by Elvina Yau and was originally published on her WordPress blog, Elvina the Explorer, on July 26, 2017.