Primate Conservation in the Pearl of Africa

A group of baboons at Kibale National Park make behavioral observation easy.

My sophomore year of undergrad at Cornell, I applied on a whim to Hunter College’s winter break study abroad program with Dr. Jessica Rothman, a primatologist in the Anthropology Department at Hunter. I have been passionate about wildlife since childhood.  Even as a toddler, I would stare unblinkingly at my safari motion lamp, watching the elephants, giraffes, and lions strut in an endless loop and dreaming of the day that I would see them for myself. When I was admitted into the program, my dream was coming true. 

Tito, a habituated chimpanzee in Kibale National Park, takes advantage of a photo op.

It’s no secret that there is a danger in setting high expectations. In the weeks leading up to my 2018 trip to Uganda, I had ample time to question whether my study abroad experience could possibly live up to my hopes. And I can’t count the number of times I screamed at the television in horror in the week before my trip, as the Weather Channel heralded the arrival of Winter Storm Grayson, the bomb cyclone that slammed the East Coast two days before my departure from JFK Airport. Pre-trip jitters aside, I can say with tremendous gratitude that this trip managed to exceed my already sky high expectations. This experience lent me an educated view of the nuanced complexities of conservation. 

 The course, Tropical Forest Conservation, was primarily geared towards field research, so we spent time learning how to identify flora and fauna in the forest, how to track primates as they moved throughout the forest, and how to best observe them in Kibale National Park. This first leg of the trip allowed me to see a range of species in their natural habitats and to see for myself the ecological diversity present in the park that makes its protection essential. I also gained a better understanding of the unique opportunities and challenges associated with field work. 

The second leg of the trip in Queen Elizabeth Park consisted of game drives, during which we saw lions, elephants, warthogs, hippos, African buffalo, and more. Seeing these species for myself was definitely among my favorite parts of the trip. However, throughout the course, we also heard lectures from various conservation workers in Uganda, from researchers to members of the Uganda Wildlife Authority. I had the chance to hear firsthand about some of the challenges of conservation and to understand the complexities of achieving lasting change. Before this course, I saw the challenges to conservation as being quite simple. I imagined those who would seek to harm animals as movie-style villains, all but swathed in black capes. The narrative is certainly riddled with villainy, but I now know just how many complicating factors there are. Many people in Uganda have complex relationships with their native wildlife because the animals are inadvertently hindering their way of life. A single elephant can consume in one night the crops that would feed a family for a year. Wild animals can at times pose a threat to the livelihoods of local people, so asking them to help conserve their wildlife is more complicated than I had initially thought.

Elephants at Queen Elizabeth National Park enjoy a dip.

I was so intrigued by the challenges to conservation that months after my trip, I interviewed Dr. Colin Chapman, a professor in the Anthropology Department at McGill University, Canada Research Chair in Primate Ecology and Conservation, and the head of the Kibale Monkey Project in Uganda about his conservation and humanitarian work. Dr. Chapman’s extensive research work around the globe has lent him a unique perspective on how to best promote an interest in conservation. He told me that “Almost everywhere the local people want to conserve. There’s a real pride in their forests and their animals. When they don’t conserve, it’s mostly because they feel they don’t have a choice. If you have to cut down a tree to send your children to school, what’s your choice? I think that’s the thing that I’ve found around the world and I find it really positive. If we can provide things that make life a little bit easier, it’s basically going to mean that there’s a big will to conserve.” My own experience in Uganda led me to similar conclusions. Dr. Chapman’s efforts to improve park-people interactions have already yielded positive results. (For more information, I recommend visiting Dr. Chapman’s website: http://www.chapmancolin.com/ ). 

The issues surrounding conservation are so multi-faceted, they will require an equally complex approach to solving them. My trip to Uganda and the conversations that ensued were a tremendous learning experience for me. Through my different conservation and wildlife medicine related experiences, I have met so many different people with different backgrounds, opinions, and skill sets. What unifies them is a passion for conservation and a drive to support animal populations and their environment, and, in doing so, better the human experience. 

 


Colleen Sorge, class of 2024, is a Cornell DVM student from Long Island, NY. She obtained her undergraduate degree in Animal Science from Cornell University in 2020. She has a wide range of interests within the veterinary field, including both small animal and wildlife medicine. 

 

Indonesia’s Intricacies: Rhinos, Lorises, and a Dab of Dengue

View along the way to International Animal Rescue – Bogor

When one thinks of Indonesia, picturesque scenes of Bali’s beaches or bold batik patterns might come to mind. Indonesia has an entirely different meaning to me, as this archipelago constitutes one of the most biodiverse regions on the planet. Amidst the dense rainforest foliage are fascinating endemic species, but given threats from habitat loss and poaching, the future of some Indonesian species remains uncertain. In particular, Javan and Sumatran rhinoceroses exist in a precarious state, being some of the most endangered mammals in the world. Last summer, I had the privilege of traveling to Indonesia with Carmen Smith (DVM 2021) and Montana Stone (BS 2019), under the guidance of Dr. Robin Radcliffe and support from Expanding Horizons and Engaged Cornell, to partake in a multi-faceted program centered around international conservation efforts.

Alex teaching children about the role sea birds play in the ecosystem

Building upon Dr. Radcliffe’s well-established relationships with partners in Indonesia, we were warmly welcomed by personnel from WWF-Indonesia, who had created a summer schedule with the goal of exposing us to different components of conservation work. First, we headed to the buffer zone of Ujung Kulon National Park, the last habitat of the Javan rhino. We assisted a group known as Sekala Petualang as they led conservation education programs for local school children where mainly Indonesian was spoken. It became quickly apparent that the weekly Indonesian classes we took during the spring semester before leaving were my only saving grace in that remote part of Indonesia (where cellular signals are nonexistent). Environmental stewardship was the underlying theme to the program, as educating children is an effective way to create a conservation-embracing culture. Despite living alongside a national park with Javan rhinos, a number of children were unaware that such an animal even existed in their “backyard”. It was heart-warming to see that the kids had open and receptive minds. One of Carmen’s presentations introduced veterinary medicine, yet another unfamiliarity that intrigued them. This segment of the summer underscored the importance of engaging with communities, walking in their shoes, and creating a space conducive for exchanging ideas bidirectionally. 

The next portion of the summer was spent at Institut Pertanian Bogor, a prominent university, which brought us back to the hustle and bustle of Indonesia’s urban scene. The crux of Carmen’s Expanding Horizon’s project was investigating rhino pathology as a means to better inform rhino conservation initiatives. The pathology faculty were very generous with their samples, taking us through both Javan and Sumatran rhino mortality cases. Despite my ineptitude with pathology, I was able to gain an appreciation for the challenges pathologists face working with wildlife species. I soon learned what the word “autolysis” meant as we scanned each image from the necropsy; imagine the difficulty of mobilizing a team of pathologists that must trek with their supplies to remote sites within the rainforest, finally laying their hands on the deceased rhino more than a day post-mortem, precious tissues vulnerable in the incessant Indonesian heat.

Carmen analyzing histology slides at IPB

Ultimately, Carmen and I were able to translate pathology reports into English to increase their accessibility, perform literature reviews, and identify topics worthy of discussion for a scientific publication. We realized that while individuals may have a species’ best interest in mind, other parties are bound to have conflicting interests or political underpinnings that ultimately jeopardize cohesive collaborations between various conservation organizations. We learned that any work of such nature, especially in a foreign country, must be done with exacting precision and respect. This chapter of the summer would be incomplete without mentioning my bout with dengue fever, which actually made me miss a portion of the pathology work. What started as a simple cough turned into body aches, fever, inappetence, and more. I figured an illness was inevitable in a novel tropical country, so I thought this was normal (despite running out of all of my pain medication trying to ease the symptoms). Soon thereafter, Montana also fell ill with dengue, at which point I was tested. Although no one heads off to international experiences with the intention of contracting a mosquito-borne disease, the experience was a lesson in resilience and preparedness. After all, despite being ill, I was unable to turn down a day trip to Taman Mini, a phenomenal bird park!

Prior to the next portion of the program, we briefly visited an illegal pet market, which unnerves me still to this day. I had a mental image of what such a market would entail, though nothing could have prepared me for the true horror I saw. Densely packed cages teeming with stressed birds (not to mention the dead birds littering the cage bottoms) were interrupted by cages of civets, flying foxes, macaques, and more. My heart ached for the bird that would not live to see another sunrise, for the listless civet lying motionless in its cage, and for the chained baby macaque tucked away in the shadows. I felt defeated, but I realized that such scenes are the very essence of what drives me and many other veterinary students to pursue careers that contribute to the conservation of wildlife. This experience solidified why educating the next generation on the importance of conservation and environmental stewardship is essential. 

Routine health assessment of a Javan slow loris at IAR

With the atrocities from the market still fresh on our minds, Carmen and I went to International Animal Rescue – Bogor, a site that primarily focuses on rescue, rehabilitation, and release of Javan and Sumatran slow lorises. Lorises are common in the wildlife trade, and in the markets, their canines are clipped, setting the stage for dental and subsequent metabolic disease. A number of the lorises we worked with were non-releasable, so the rescue exceeded twice its anticipated capacity. We engaged in loris husbandry, spent nights observing lorises (an experience unlike any other!), and helped with their veterinary care. Multiple patients illustrated the harsh reality of a fragmented habitat. The mere existence of a road bordered by uncoated electrical wires poses a great threat to unsuspecting lorises attempting to cross the road. The prognosis is often bleak for the few lorises that manage to survive electrocution. This experience solidified my understanding of the human/wildlife dynamic, which tragically tends to swing in favor of the former.

Carmen, Montana, and Alex at Kelian Sanctuary, Borneo

Habitat loss and fragmentation set the stage for the next experience that brought us to Kelian Sanctuary in Borneo. The previous year, a Sumatran rhino named Pahu was rescued from the wild and brought to the sanctuary. Pahu is possibly only one of three rhinos remaining of her subspecies, so it is of utmost importance to rescue these isolated animals and investigate breeding options. There are Sumatran rhinos (Sumatran subspecies) that reside at the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary in Sumatra, so collaboration is anticipated in an attempt to save this species overall. As we landed in Borneo in a precarious propellor plane, the three of us were riddled with excitement. In the few days we had at Kelian, the team composed of individuals from WWF-Indonesia and ALeRT completely immersed us in the operations at the sanctuary. Before I knew it, I was hand feeding Pahu various plants, watching her veterinary examinations and procedures, and observing her in her paddock. It was at that moment that it was clear to me that megafauna like the Sumatran rhino simply cannot be lost from this planet—it is our duty to fight with all of our passion and intensity to save such species before they slip away. Even when I was out with the team collecting food for Pahu or planting trees in the rainforest, I embraced the physical and acoustic beauty of the surrounding rainforest. During patrols of Pahu’s paddock, I witnessed gibbons, macaques, hornbills, and even a clouded leopard. During this time, Montana was able to train personnel at the sanctuary to utilize a Cornell Lab of Ornithology Swift recorder to document Pahu’s vocalizations, as no bioacoustical analysis had previously been done on Sumatran rhinos. To this day, I treasure hearing a content Pahu wallowing in the mud, “humming” and producing kazoo-like sounds, and I hope that one day everyone will know of this rhino’s plight and hear their delightful vocalizations.

As I write, I wonder whether that was my first and last time working with a Sumatran rhino. Let me re-phrase that—will the next generation even learn of critically endangered species like the Indonesian rhinos or will the species’ names be relics of a bygone era? Questions like these serve as an impetus for my passion in conservation medicine. My time in Indonesia helped me grasp what international conservation work entails, exposed me to the associated difficulties, all while leaving me inspired. I met some of the most passionate individuals in Indonesia, so I have faith that my previous questions will have favorable responses decades from now.

Lessons from Wolf Tracking in the Pacific Northwest

Wild wolf caught on trail camera.

Few species have as storied a history with humans as the wolf. From an early age, I was fascinated by their prehistoric domestication and their more recent exterminations and reintroductions. I devoured every book about wolves I could find, and learned about the 1995 reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone National Park. I found it so fascinating that one species could have such an extensive impact on the landscape. The wolves pushed elk from their comfortable hangouts on river banks, allowing stream flora to build up, and a greater variety of birds to make their homes on the banks. Wolves’ presence went so far as to have a physical effect on the topography of the area, and even brought back the quaking aspen tree from the brink of extinction! Learning these facts made me realize how important wolves are to their ecosystems as a keystone species, and kindled my desire to go out and explore the land they were changing.  

As a high school freshman already thinking about a career working with animals, I took part in a wolf tracking summer camp for teenagers run by Wilderness Awareness School, based in Washington State (quite a distance away from my home in New Jersey). At this camp we searched for signs of wildlife during the day on field expeditions, and came back in the afternoon to hit our mobile library to research our observations. Our instructors drilled us in subjects like paw pad morphology, bird markings, and common behaviors of local wildlife. We developed our deductive reasoning skills by transforming our observations on the ground into conclusions about the ecosystem’s structure. Every time we thought we’d found a sign of the area’s resident wolf pack, we’d mark it down on our map. By the end of the camp we had a pretty good idea of its recent activities. We left a trail camera at one of their high activity sites, and captured a video of an adult wolf accompanied by that year’s new litter of pups! Not only was it rewarding to see such elusive animals on our own cameras, but also we were the first observers to confirm that the pack had whelped that year. We were able to provide that information to Washington’s state scientist.

Front and hind track from a wolf in the cascade mountains.

There I also learned about the current challenges that occur when the lives of wolves and people intersect. In Washington and Idaho where wolves travel down from Canada and up from their reintroduction point in Yellowstone, they live on the same land where cattle farmers raise free range beef. Needless to say, this creates a complex intersection of values. Cattle farmers depend on their livestock for their livelihoods. Ranchers and their communities are concerned that wolves will harm that livelihood by killing their cattle instead of elusive deer. Whether it was seeing bumper stickers that said “smoke a pack a day” next to a picture of a wolf’s head, or hearing stories about hunters shouting at the top of the lungs that all wolves need to go to hell, I learned quickly that people felt strongly about this issue. As a future veterinarian and scientist, I understand the need for veterinarians to protect and help both cattle and wolves, supporting farmers and healthy ecosystems. 

Before attending this program, I didn’t understand how reintroducing wolves could have any negative impacts. Through my experience at Wilderness Awareness School I came to appreciate the validity of the concerns for reintroduction. Even if reintroducing wolves benefits the overall ecosystem, we cannot ignore the effects they have on ranchers’ livelihoods. Whether it’s protecting a herd of cattle, or treating an injured wolf, veterinarians can help innovate solutions to benefit all animals, wild and domestic. 


Patrick Liu, class of 2024, is a Cornell DVM student. He graduated with a degree in chemistry from Rutgers University in 2020, and plans to pursue internships and residencies after veterinary school. Apart from his love for horses, he has a strong interest in ecological research and wildlife and conservation medicine. 

 

 

Moving Forward with Wildlife

I am truly fascinated by the interconnectedness of our world. One of the reasons that I am so passionate about wildlife medicine and conservation is because it spans the dimensions of human, non-human animal, and environmental wellbeing. I could spend hours avidly discussing all of the intricate connections between wildlife and human health.

The COVID-19 pandemic is no exception to the fact that everything in the world is deeply intertwined. Over the last few weeks, I’ve had conversations with my friends and colleagues about issues such as social inequality, healthcare, community, societal values, epidemiology, history, new developments, and the list goes on. These recent current events also reveal an important intersection between human and wildlife health and, in doing so, provide an impetus for us to take responsibility for the wellbeing of wildlife and the environment.

Elephants in Tanzania (Loxodonta africana)

There is a great deal of evidence that suggests that many emerging human diseases, including this current pandemic, are linked to our interactions with wildlife. The CDC estimates that 6 out of every 10 established infections and 3 out of every 4 new or emerging infections are from non-human animals. In addition to the current pandemic, past health crises, such as HIV and Ebola, were also linked to the wildlife trade. The goal of this article is not to thoroughly evaluate the evidence for that connection, but rather to discuss its consequences. If you would like to learn more about the relationship between wildlife and emerging human diseases, check out the resources at the end of this article.

If we acknowledge that potentially dangerous emerging diseases can often be linked to our interactions with wildlife, then we must ask — what do we do about it? For the most part, I hear two responses. One — support wildlife health and reduce harmful interactions between humans and other animals. Two — get rid of wildlife. You might guess that I would personally choose option one. I believe that every person has many reasons to do the same.

We rely on wildlife health more than we often acknowledge, or maybe would even like to admit. Wildlife health is imperative for healthy ecosystems and we rely on those ecosystems for life itself. Think big — oxygen, food security, water, climate stability, and more. Healthy ecosystems also provide enormous economic stimulation through massive industries such as transportation, shipping, recreation, and many more. We continue to uncover potential medications from areas that have persistent biodiversity, such as alternatives to opioids and possible new sources of antibiotics. We need healthy ecosystems all over the world to support and enable us to continue living on this planet. Unfortunately, those ecosystems and the inhabiting wildlife species are threatened from many directions.

Lemon shark off of South Caicos, Turks & Caicos Islands (Negaprion brevirostris)

Species that once had the space to exist without interacting with humans are now forced into contact with human communities after their habitats are continuously destroyed and fragmented. Climate change leads to shifting geographic ranges leading to species appearing in new locations around people that have never been exposed to them before. Many species become endangered or extinct every year, all representing possible losses for unforeseen discoveries. Devastating abuse is committed against animals through the wildlife trade all across the world. Those wildlife trade markets also pose a major risk to human health by exposing a wide variety of stressed, immunocompromised animals to each other and humans in tight quarters, sometimes being ingested and in other cases begin transported all across the world. The more we push these animals to the brink, the more at risk we become — to disease, climate instability, food insecurity, loss of biodiversity, and more.

I have good news though. Every single person has the potential to be a conservationist. That means you. Each one of us has our own unique set of perspectives and skills that can be wielded to improve the state of wildlife and ecosystem health, and therefore environmental and human wellbeing across the world. The most important thing to know is that we all have something to offer.

New Zealand fur seal on the South Island of New Zealand (Arctocephalus forsteri)

If you have training, consider how you might apply that knowledge to offer a new solution. Successful communication takes on infinite forms — use your method to spread awareness, organize, and build ideas together. We can communicate through visual art, music, words, writing, and so on. Find your strength and implement it. Be mindful of what you consume and purchase. Turn off your lights. If you are coming from a place of privilege, acknowledge that with a sensitive awareness and use it to make the world a better place for humans and so many other species.

No action is ‘small’. Taking action is a big and mighty step to take, no matter the scale. When you take action, you become a conservationist.

This crisis has exposed just how reliant we are on mutual compassion and consideration for other beings sharing our communities and our planet. By taking action on issues we care about, we can nourish that feeling of unity and respect. We need to nurture a culture of compassion that acknowledges the interconnectedness of all facets of our globe and daily lives. No matter how you decide to contribute to positive change in this world, you should know that it is all deeply and inevitably intertwined. An improvement on one problem supports change for another in direct and indirect ways.

Moose in Alaska (Alces alces)

While you are thinking about how you can contribute to this global kindness, don’t forget to be kind to yourself. Sometimes the constant drive to make a difference can be confusing, complicated, and filled with uncertainty. Sometimes we can inadvertently put large amounts of stress on ourselves or our relationships. Give yourself the space to constantly learn and evolve. Remember — no one is perfect and no one can do everything. We all must work together. While you are being kind to the planet and all of the creatures living on it, always remember to be kind to yourself and those around you.

I hope we learn from the solidarity that has been conjured by this pandemic. I hope we harness it for empowerment, triggering a cascade of positive actions that can change our world for the better. In my experience, taking action for the things that are important to me has been empowering. That empowerment can be a brilliant source of invigorating positive energy, particularly in times when we feel utterly powerless. When we emerge from this crisis, I hope that we can continue to unite and pursue empowerment by taking action for positive change. Let’s change the way we see and engage with each other, our world, and the other animals living within it.

Thank you for your time and thoughts. I sincerely wish health and safety to everyone reading this. I have many resources saved regarding all of the issues mentioned in this short article and I would love to share them with you if you are interested!

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Resources to learn more:

A recent, short Scientific American interview about COVID-19, the wildlife trade, and human disease: https://www.scientificamerican.com/podcast/episode/covid-19-the-wildlife-trade-and-human-disease/

A CDC page explaining zoonotic disease: https://www.cdc.gov/onehealth/basics/zoonotic-diseases.html.

Karesh et al. Wildlife Trade and Global Disease Emergence. Emerging Infectious Diseases; 11 (7) 2005.



Mariah Rayfield Beck, class of 2020, will be starting a small animal rotating internship at Ocean State Veterinary Specialists in Rhode Island this summer. After that, she plans to specialize in wildlife and conservation medicine. She is also an educator that teaches about marine conservation in classes, workshops, and summer camps.

Going Batty: A New Perspective

A Big brown bat with her wing wrapped to stabilize a wing injury

When the average person thinks of a bat, many thoughts may cross their mind, most of them negative. These thoughts and feelings include fear, disgust, and more. People often think of them as “flying rats”, worry that all bats will drink their blood, or try to attack them. In fact, out of over 1,300 bat species, there are only three species of vampire bats that drink blood, while the vast majority of other species are insectivores or frugivores, meaning they eat insects or fruit and nectar. Bats are responsible for an incredible amount of insect control, improving public health by keeping the numbers of disease-carrying bugs, like mosquitoes, down. They also protect crops from insects, eliminating the need for massive amounts of pesticides. Frugivorous bats are important pollinators and seed dispensers, keeping plants and forests healthy. Other people have a fear of rabid bats, and while this can be a concern, just like any other mammal that can be a rabies vector, the vast majority of bats are rabies-free. Like many wild animals, bats are usually more scared of humans than we are of them.

A Hoary bat hangs in its cage

 I’ve learned all of this and more volunteering at Wild Things Sanctuary in Ithaca, NY, working with a variety of local bat species. Some of these species include Little brown bats, Big brown bats, Eastern red bats, and Hoary bats. While I wasn’t one to be disgusted or afraid of bats, I was definitely a little wary the first time I had to grab one out of its cage at Wild Things. Victoria Campbell, the founder, was patient as she instructed me and other volunteers on handling techniques. The majority of the bats that come in are Big brown bats, and even the largest of these can still fit in the palm of your hand. It’s hard to interact so closely with them and not eventually fall in love.

In the outdoor flight cage at Wild Things, bats are able to fly around, catching insects that make their way in, or eating the mealworms provided until they are strong enough to be released. If you visit the flight cage around dusk, you can sometimes see bats flying across, swerving around your head as their echolocation guides them through the enclosure. Sometimes, we turn on the bat monitor to hear the clicks of their echolocation as the bats go about their lives.

The outdoor flight cage at Wild Things Sanctuary

When the weather turns and the harsh Ithaca cold sets in, any bats that are not able to be released at that time are brought inside to be overwintered until the spring or summer when it is warm enough for them again. Many of these bats may hibernate much of the winter away in a room that is kept cold enough to allow them to sleep, much like the caves that these bats would inhabit naturally in the winter. Other bats are kept in heated cages to allow them to heal from injuries or to maintain their metabolism if they require treatments like antibiotics or pain medication. Bats are brought to Wild Things from all over the state. Oftentimes, Victoria will rely on the help of volunteers or other rehabilitators to bring bats part or all the way from more distant locations. 

Victoria Campbell is solely responsible for the care of the bats, and with the help of the occasional volunteer like myself, can take in and rehabilitate over one hundred bats in a year. This number could be even higher if bats were less misunderstood and people were as willing to help them as they were a baby bird or an injured squirrel. 

More than learning about bat species, husbandry, or fun facts I can throw out at a cocktail party, the biggest lesson I have learned working with these animals is just how misunderstood they are. They are not the blood-sucking flying terrors that many make them out to be. They have different personalities and rich social interactions with each other. Sometimes while treating them, they can be very vocal or try to fly away, but you can tell how scared they are to be injured in some unknown environment being handled by a large creature for an unknown reason.

Bats in the Northeast are increasingly threatened by white-nose syndrome. White-nose is a fungus that can grow on hibernating bats in caves and lead to their deaths. It is thought to do this by irritating bats enough to wake them up during hibernation, leading to them burning through their fat stores faster so they are unable to survive through the winter. It can also damage their wings, making flight impossible. Entire populations of bats in some areas have been wiped out by the fungus. In a time when we are facing great threats to wildlife both at home and globally, there is no better time to show some compassion to bats and other equally “undesirable” species. In the end, it benefits both those animals and you!

A group of Big brown bats rests in a “bat house”, a wooden shelter built by Victoria Campbell

To learn more about Wild Things Sanctuary and the work they do, visit their website: http://www.wildthingssanctuary.org/