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.