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.

Opinion: The Value of a Common Cottontail

As a profession learned in the causes of animal suffering, one of the most fundamental ethical questions we veterinarians can ask ourselves is, “to what extent do we have a moral obligation to maintain the health of an animal that has no perceivable benefit to society?” To answer this question, I examine the nature of a moral obligation within the context of the veterinary profession.

The moral obligation on the part of the veterinarian is restricted in some ways by the nature of moral obligations. For example, moral obligations are always achievable which means veterinarians are not responsible for the treatment of an animal for which they lack the knowledge or resources to treat. However, if the veterinarian has the ability and a moral obligation to treat the animal, then the animal ought to be treated so long as treatment does not come into conflict with a greater moral obligation.

A veterinarian’s moral obligations towards a Bengal tiger or a Basset Hound should theoretically be the same as a veterinarian’s obligations towards an ordinary bunny. We should not consider endangered status or existence of an owner because the intrinsic value of an individual Bengal, Basset and bunny are (at this point) assumed to be the same.

If the life and health of an animal have an intrinsic value, then by virtue of their training, veterinarians have a moral obligation and responsibility for suffering that accompanies increased knowledge of the causes of suffering. Essentially, the claim that this moral obligation exists is a determination that the value of the healthy animal is greater than the cost in time, money, effort or emotion of caring for the animal. However, the value of the animal may not be enough to warrant this investment.

Animals also have extrinsic value, which is the value an animal has as a means to an end (e.g the charm of a wild animal, the production value of a cow, or the sentimental value of your family’s cat). Extrinsic values can be subjective (e.g. I feel rabbits are adorable and you feel they are garden gnawing goblins) or objective (e.g. the price of a rabbit pelt). The problem with objectivity is that it is much easier to believe in an objective value when we have science-based evidence to support our claim. Proof of an objective intrinsic value is nearly impossible beyond the metaphysical realm. This is problematic because we must prove the value exists in order to reasonably claim we have a moral obligation towards saving an animal with little to no extrinsic value. In other words, to say veterinarians ought to save the aforementioned rabbit, one relies on the premise that an individual rabbit – with no means of paying for its healthcare or value to society – is worth being saved.

Most animal lovers would make the argument that animals have a worth beyond their extrinsic value. That is, most animal lovers will claim that a veterinarian should treat a rhinoceros even if the rhinoceros does not act as a source of income for an individual or organization. However, once we strip an animal of the things that make it fun, exciting, or enjoyable to people (think sewer rat), the obligation that most of us we feel we or others have towards the animal diminishes.

A snag we hit when attempting to defend the intrinsic value of an animal is that even if you could prove its objective existence, the intrinsic value may not be enough to warrant a moral obligation on the part of the veterinarian, or anyone for that matter (e.g. say we could establish that bunnies have an intrinsic value of 10 units but the cost of treatment is worth 100 units, then the health of the bunny is not enough to justify cost of treatment).

Another issue with the veterinarian’s moral obligation to an animal is that the intrinsic value of that animal could be so insignificant that any expenditure would not be justified. This occurs when, despite the intrinsic value, the extrinsic value of an animal is greater when humans act against the animal’s well-being. Unfortunately, for many animals their quantifiable extrinsic value is greater when they are not treated (i.e. a rabbit: with no owner to cover the cost of treatment) or dead (i.e. a rhinoceros: whose remains can be sold for an exorbitant amount of money).

In order to determine if an act ought to be done, we weigh the extrinsic and intrinsic value of acting against not acting:

A Moral Obligation Exists When:

Extrinsic Value + Intrinsic value > Cost (money, time, emotion, etc.)

It occurs often that no extrinsic value exists, and the intrinsic value of the animal does not outweigh saving the animal. The clearest instance of this truth in veterinary medicine is evidenced by our control of parasites wherein we actively kill some animals (fleas, roundworms, etc.) for the benefit of another animal that has a greater extrinsic value to us (tigers, dogs, etc.):

No Moral Obligation Exists to Save the Rabbit (or flea) when:

(no extrinsic value) + Intrinsic Value of the Animal < Cost of Treatment

Despite my desire to argue otherwise, it is difficult to claim veterinarians have a moral obligation to assist animals that do not provide some benefit to mankind. This same notion is reiterated in the Veterinarian’s Oath whereby we swear to “benefit society” through the “relief of animal suffering” as opposed to relieving animal suffering for its own sake. From a conservation point of view, this post is frustrating. From a practical point of view, this means that rather than attempting to convert people to conservation by claiming a bunny should be saved by virtue of its being a being, energy should be directed to revealing the extrinsic value(s) of the bunny.  Success will require application of psychology, patience, economics, empathy, public health, philosophy, and – of course – veterinary medicine.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

María Juarez (Class of 2021) hopes to use comparative reproductive physiology to promote the preservation of North American species and improve the health of livestock. As an admirer of ethics and economics, she hopes augment community conscious conservation strategies after veterinary school.

How Space Technologies are Transforming Wildlife Conservation

The conservation of forests and wildlife is becoming increasingly important around the world due to human interference and the rising number of endangered species.

Currently, many practices involved in the monitoring, tracking and protection of wild animals involve time-consuming, resource heavy processes. New, sustainable solutions for conservation are needed to safeguard wildlife effectively in the current climate.

Projects utilising space technologies such as satellite navigation and imagery and the wireless transmission of data are finding new ways to help protect the health of wild animal populations around the world.

Here, we feature some of the initiatives driving positive change in the sector.


WAMCAM: Monitoring Endangered Species Through AI

The WAMCAM project was originally created to aid researchers studying the native leopard population in Borneo. The process of setting up and checking live animal traps and camera traps in the dense jungle was a long-winded process that didn’t allow for wide scale study.

The solution was the WAMCAM, a battery-powered camera with added AI capabilities to identify the species of animals captured by traps. When an animal triggers a trap, the camera, which is connected to remote devices via satellite, will send a signal to researchers. This allows researchers to only travel through the rainforest when needed and makes tagging and health monitoring more efficient.

Satellite navigation technology can also be used in areas with decreased visibility to locate traps across a wider area for more extensive studies on animal population.

All the information gathered is stored digitally, resulting in clearer, more reliable research data to be shared globally.


Space Applications for Wildlife

This project provides a global service for the monitoring of wildlife habitats and nature around the world. Designed for governments, NGOs, businesses and universities, the project delivers regular wildlife trend reports, wildlife management advice and crisis prevention plans.

The project uses existing data collected by satellites monitoring the earth to provide reports on habitat quality around the world. By comparing historical data from the satellites to current satellite imagery, trends and changes can be detected and plans put in place for the protection of natural habitats.

Light pollution, land ecosystems, marine ecosystems and the quality of animal habitats can all be tracked by this innovative technology. One of the main benefits of this, is that it can be used in any location.


SISMA: Monitoring Domestic and Wild Herds

The SISMA project has been created with herders and agricultural state agencies in mind. One element of this project works to protect the reindeer population in Russia. Due to weak terrestrial communications in Northern Russia, the scheme utilises satellite navigations systems, Earth Observation and satellite imagery to track herds. This technology has the aim of reducing animal loss, preventing disease and managing habitats through remote, accurate monitoring.

The project includes a collar system connected to a mobile app to inform herders of their animals’ location and check for disease via temperature monitoring and alerts.

There is also a ‘disease channel’ for veterinarians to share early warning signs for diseases. The final element is the ‘data centre’ which collects current and historical statistics for further analysis, accessible via cloud services.

Funding Conservation Projects

Finding new, sustainable ways to protect endangered species and monitor the health of wild animals around the world is crucial.

For projects such as these to become more wildly accessible, they need support and funding from governments, local authorities and commercial stakeholders.

These projects have all received essential funding from ESA Business Apps.


ABOUT THE ORGANIZATION:

The European Space Agency (ESA) is an international organisation which organizes European space programs to find out more about the Earth, our solar system and the Universe. ESA is dedicated to encouraging investment in space research and satellite-based technologies and services for the benefit of Europe and the rest of the world.

The European Space Agency: Business Applications (ESA-BA) offers zero-equity funding, access to their network and project management advice to any business looking to use space technologies for new services.

To discover more projects they’ve helped grow, head over to the ESA-BA funding page.

The Bioethics of Wildlife Intervention

A young springbok prancing in the air, a behavior known as “pronking.” Photo via Wikimedia Commons, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

A one-day-old springbok rises on his gangly legs — the shriveled umbilical cord still dangling from his ventrum — and begins to boing around his new surroundings. There is plenty to discover in the vast African bushveld, which he proceeds to do with reckless abandon.

Suddenly, a group of jackals saunters from behind an acacia tree and one of them seizes the “bokkie” by the neck. Within seconds, a game reserve employee dashes out of his safari vehicle to shoo away the jackals, gingerly picks up the injured springbok, and races to the wildlife clinic. Thankfully, no puncture wounds are detected, only bruising — the bokkie is later returned to the original site. The veterinarian waits from afar, hoping the youngster will rejoin his springbok herd.

Adult male sable antelope (Hippotragus niger). Photo via Wikimedia Commons, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

A month later, an adult male sable is seen hobbling on three legs due to a severe hoof infection. Darting supplies and medications are loaded onto a helicopter, from which the sable is safely anesthetized. After sedation is achieved, the hoof is examined and subsequently treated with saline flush and antibiotics. A reversal drug is then injected into the thigh muscle, upon which personnel are instructed to vacate the premises expediently. Meanwhile, the veterinarian remains on-site to verify the antelope’s full recovery.

Clearly, there is never a dull day in wildlife medicine. As an aspiring wildlife veterinarian who plans to pursue conservation medicine, I have frequently encountered this bioethical issue in both my academic studies and fieldwork. The aforementioned circumstances were experiences I witnessed during my summer in Namibia, where I was conducting research and shadowing the resident veterinarian on a wildlife reserve. Although these individual scenarios involved many factors worth analyzing, the veterinarian plays a prominent role in each situation, often deferred to for coordinating the remedial actions taken and their outcomes.

The aftermath of the above scenarios: the sable gradually improved post-treatment, whereas the springbokkie was never seen again — and thus, presumed dead.

That begs the question: Was it right for the employee to painstakingly pluck the baby springbok from his herd after being attacked by jackals? Were his actions compassionate or officious? Although the infant was promptly returned, it was possible the bokkie was rejected from his herd since the human handling had now covered him in foreign scent. After failing to be adopted back into the group, he was left vulnerable to the pesky jackals once more.

As health care professionals, veterinarians are uniquely positioned to address complex ethical issues involving human, animal, and ecosystem health — a concept aptly known as “One Health.” This initiative governs the core of conservation medicine and reflects the interrelationship and transdisciplinary approach needed to ultimately ensure the wellbeing of all.

The history of human-wildlife relations has experienced some challenges and backlash, but handling these interactions involves balancing valid concerns, prioritizing values, and adopting a hybrid perspective. We regularly wrestle with whether our actions are restorative or destructive, and reflect on a track record of gratifying wins and unsavory losses to learn from. Given our substantial roles in the fate of conservation, it is imperative to debate the significance of interventional efforts and whether they can be rationalized.

While the veterinary profession certainly paints a noble picture of treating injured and sick animals, conducting mass rescues, and mitigating human-wildlife conflict, the interventional aspect entailed in all these tasks suggest, to some, the controversial idea of “playing God.” Are the measures taken regarded as dutiful obligation or self-righteous interference?

On a more abstract level, such apotheosis is inevitable for any professional practicing contemporary medicine. However, the hubris of playing God is arguably heavier for veterinarians since more stakeholders fall within their jurisdiction. As an arbiter for animals, humans, and the environment, veterinarians are constantly confronted with clinical decisions involving life and death and must calculate the associated risks and benefits for multiple constituents. Tampering with the system may result in inadvertent consequences. Conversely, just because resources are available does not necessarily mean they should be used.

Though many have applauded scientific achievements such as GMOs, assisted reproductive technologies, and instrumental surveillance, others have perceived these fields as an exercise of human dominance. The idea of wildlife intervention engenders similarly conflicting sentiments. When physicians and scientists employ these seemingly “unnatural” methods, public fear arises around their potential negative — albeit unintended — consequences. Such discomfort may reflect an underlying mistrust of science and technology in favor of a powerfully unpredictable force of nature as the ultimate source of authority. When working on a free-ranging wildlife reserve that actively promotes conservation, there are various instances in which human intervention is utilized, sparking discussion of the decision-making principles that are applied and the degree of success achieved.

On one hand, the “Circle of Life” argument is commonly cited against wildlife intervention. Such critics support a laissez-faire policy that enables Mother Nature to take her course. Any meddling on the veterinarian’s part would thereby violate this principle. Despite one’s desire to aid the patient and provide necessary care for its survival, that may interfere with the operative principle of natural selection. In retrospect, with the bokkie case, a passive approach may have been best. Simply put, there are predator species and prey species; animals must eat to survive, and we cannot disrupt this instinct.

However, the “Circle of Life” argument fails to extend to veterinary work conducted with domestic pets — namely, preventative medicine. For example, routine vaccination protocols that keep our companion animals healthy are also employed in wild animals to prevent the spread of infectious diseases. If an emerging disease threatens an epidemiological crisis — especially if the pathogen is zoonotic, i.e. can be transmitted between animals and people — this must be addressed on a population level to prevent a mass mortality event.

Generally, the guideline regarding wildlife intervention is to act when the problem presented is due to human impact. Whether it’s gunshot wounds, lead toxicity, or hit-by-car cases, we are obligated to treat accordingly. We bear a responsibility to rectify anthropogenic consequences wrought on wildlife, simply because we caused them. Moreover, other factors warrant intervention, particularly if there is monetary value attached to a certain animal or species in need of saving. In fact, this factor supported the decision to intervene with the adult sable, who was one of three males on the entire reserve. For the purposes of his health and tourism value, treating this sable was deemed permissible.

As stewards and advocates of nature, we understand the precautionary principle of playing God, its inextricable social and ethical implications, and the requisite, evidence-based risk management of any impending decisions. While there is no absolutism with these difficult situations and exceptions can occasionally be made, moral reflection, consideration of all stakeholders, and development of our own self-knowledge may help us navigate this complex terrain.

This post is written by Elvina Yau and was originally published on Mongabay on October 8, 2018.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Elvina Yau, class of 2020, is a veterinary student from Long Island, New York. She graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 2016 with a degree in Behavioral Neuroscience and double minor in Creative Writing & Biology. Elvina aspires to split her time between practicing Companion Animal Medicine in the U.S. and contributing to conservation efforts abroad both as a clinician and freelance photojournalist.

Dinner Event: Careers in Wildlife Conservation, Zoo, and Exotic Medicine

When: Wednesday, August 29th, 5:00-6:30pm
Where: Lecture Hall 5, the vet school
At this event, you will have the opportunity to hear from and interview some of the world’s top experts, spanning the fields of zoological and exotic medicine, wildlife health policy, and reproduction. Come prepared with questions!
 
Dinner will be served for the first 50 people–RSVP here

Dinner lecture: “Let’s drink to conservation – how coffee can help people and the planet”

What: Tropical Biology and Conservation will host Dr. Amanda Rodewald, the Director of Conservation Science at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Garvin Professor in Natural Resources who has worked extensively with bird and biodiversity conservation in Latin American agroecosystems.

Pizza and beverages provided from 5:00-5:15 PM, the talk begins at 5:15 PM and a discussion follows.

When: April 11, 5pm

Where: Emerson Hall, room 135

Event: “Every Picture Tells a Story: How to Create Visual Stories in the Field”

What: ZAWS be hosting David Brown, an award-winning cinematographer, to teach a course in wildlife photography/cinematography and visual storytelling, including its importance in wildlife conservation. The course will be taught in two 2-hour sessions.  To get the most out of the course you should attend both lectures, but if you can only attend one that is okay.

When: April 10th and April 18th, 6-8pm

Where: Lecture Hall Floor, the vet school

Dinner will be served.  Sign up here