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.

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 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.

 

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.

The Elephant Diaries, Part 1: Elvina Yau (2020)

Rising second year veterinary student Elvina Yau is in Chiang Mai, Thailand, conducting research on Asian elephants.  Over the next few weeks, she will be contributing a series of posts called The Elephant Diaries about her unforgettable experience!  Check out Elvina’s personal blog at Elvina The Explorer.


My name is Elvina Yau and I am a rising 2nd year veterinary student at Cornell. While my professional interests include Companion Animal Medicine and practice ownership, I am also passionate about wildlife conservation. Expanding Horizons was an excellent opportunity to further explore this realm in an international setting.

I partnered with the Elephant Research and Education Center (EREC) at Chiang Mai University Veterinary School to conduct research on Asian elephant welfare. EREC was founded in 2010 with the objectives of conserving the Asian elephant species and preserving the elephant-based culture that Thailand embodies. According to the IUCN Red List, Asian elephants are listed as Endangered. Currently, Thailand’s remaining wild population is estimated at roughly 2,000-4,000. Without significant changes, the number of elephants may critically decline to levels beyond restorability. The country’s industrial shift from logging to tourism after the 1989 commercial forestry ban marked the rise of elephant camps. Many Asian elephants and their mahouts (caretakers designated to individual elephants) who were once employed in logging and resorted to illegal street performing now live in tourist camps as rescues. These camps enable the elephants to roam freely and interact with visitors while providing employment for their mahouts. Inevitably, the standards of care provided at these tourist camps vary. The complexity of tourist camps arises from the fact that elephant rescues are given a place to live at these sites, but tourism generates the income needed to provide sustenance and veterinary care for these elephants.

My project specifically investigates how elephant foot health is affected by housing factors, which is a reflection of the management practices at various tourist camps. Conditions such as hard flooring substrates, high workloads, or excessive feeding have been associated with the development of foot abnormalities. By performing thorough physical examinations and working directly with mahouts, I’ve been able to inspect the limbs of multiple elephants and use a foot assessment checklist to score the severity of foot pathology on the toenails, interdigital spaces, and footpads. Our team then applied this data by providing facility and husbandry recommendations that will improve elephant welfare at these camps.

Foot pathology comprises one of the most prevalent health concerns afflicting Asian elephants. Since health is a useful indicator of animal welfare, the data gathered from this study can help inform targeted management modifications that can be implemented at these camps, reducing foot disease while enhancing the welfare of these elephants. Studying the relationships between housing conditions and elephant foot health and applying those findings are tasks that involve a collaborative effort between veterinarians, mahouts, and camp managerial staff. Pursuing this international service-learning experience demonstrates the organizational and teamwork skills critical in the interrelated nature of any research and conservation endeavor.

Through Expanding Horizons, I witnessed the daily operations of elephant camps and clinics while immersing myself in the sights and sounds of Thailand. The experience dovetailed a clinical and research component that enabled me to hone my skills both as a budding clinician and inquisitive scientist. Obtaining a first-hand view of Thailand through a unique veterinary lens ultimately allowed me to delve into a new facet of my career path while assisting EREC in their efforts to champion elephant welfare.

From this experience, I wanted to gain not only clinical knowledge, but also better understand the institutional factors and management strategies that wildlife conservation hinges upon. Veterinary care is essential to maintaining the health of the elephant herd, coupled with educating the global community about these issues in order to promote conservation efforts. At Chiang Mai, I was placed in an incredible position to help provide veterinary services to and conduct research on Asian elephants—a formative and intensive experience during which I learned about the complexities and joys of caring for numerous elephants, and what advocating on their behalf truly entails.

Participating in Expanding Horizons this summer therefore provided me with a unique opportunity to broaden my perspective of conservation medicine and truly explore the versatility of a DVM degree. As I progress on my veterinary career path and continue to cultivate my professional interests, I am excited to uncover what lies ahead.

Read Part 2 of the Elephant Diaries here.

Expanding Horizons Bio: Eric Teplitz (2020)

Eric Teplitz (2020) in Malawi through the Expanding Horizons program at CUCVM

My name is Eric Teplitz and I am a rising 2nd year veterinary student at Cornell. With an interest in infectious disease epidemiology, I participated in the Expanding Horizons Program with the goal of gaining applied research experience in the field. I established my research project with the Silent Heroes Foundation and the Lilongwe Wildlife Trust in Malawi, an organization that promotes wildlife rescue & research, advocacy, and conservation education. Illegal bushmeat and pet trading are prevalent practices in Malawi that are destructive to ecological health and biodiversity. The Lilongwe Wildlife Centre was established as a sanctuary for animals subjected to such crimes and aims to rehabilitate and release them into the wild.

I have been at the Lilongwe Wildlife Centre for the past seven weeks, and I have another two weeks before returning home. In my free time, I’ve had several opportunities to travel, visiting South Luangwa National Park in Zambia and Liwonde National Park in Malawi. I’ve also had the unique experience of scuba diving in Lake Malawi, which has a greater diversity of fish species than any other lake on Earth!

My research objective is to provide additional information for the Lilongwe Wildlife Trust’s primate release program. Release strategies of captive wildlife are based on several factors that determine if, when, and how an animal will be reintroduced. One such factor is the risk of disease transmission from reintroduced animals to wildlife populations and humans, as failure to evaluate these risks can lead to unintended disease communication.

Salmonella and Shigella are groups of bacteria that colonize the intestine and cause diarrhea and inflammation of the gut lining. They are spread via fecal-oral transmission – the bacteria are shed in the feces and subsequently ingested by another animal. These bacteria infect nonhuman primates and humans globally and are therefore critically important for both wildlife conservation and public health. Unfortunately, Salmonella and Shigella are difficult to treat medically, and consequently studying the patterns of shedding is important for informing disease management strategies through an understanding of transmission dynamics. At the Lilongwe Wildlife Centre, I am studying the shedding patterns of Salmonella and Shigella in primates.

The primary objective of my project is to identify temporal shedding patterns of Salmonella and Shigella as well as risk factors that affect shedding. Some examples include stress, age, sex, body condition, patient history, and concurrent parasitic infection. I designed a sampling schedule upon arrival, and currently I am collecting fecal samples for bacterial culture and diagnosing parasitic infections via fecal flotation. I have been evaluating stress through behavioral analysis, monitoring for behaviors that characteristically indicate stress in primates (such as pacing, self-grooming, and excessive scratching).

The project involves components of microbiology, primatology, and epidemiology, and the interdisciplinary expertise I gained during my first year of veterinary school has allowed me to conduct my research successfully. Designing and implementing an epidemiology study has been a useful learning experience as I find ways to adapt to logistical and technical constraints while in Malawi. Throughout the past several weeks, I have become more familiar with the procedures for primate integrations and reintroductions, which has guided my experimental design so that I can provide the most important information. In my remaining two weeks in Lilongwe, I will do my best to produce useful data!

International Experiences Application Deadline: January 20, 2017

The deadline for applying to International Experiences program is January 20, 2017.

“Thanks to the generosity of the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies at Cornell, we are pleased to announce that we have funds available to support 3-4 veterinary students who are interested in international experiential opportunities in any geographic region of the world. Experiences are not restricted to developing countries. Experience may be pursued anytime between summer 2017- spring 2018.”

Download the PDF call for proposals here: International Experiences- call for proposals 2017