May 28, 2019

By Maris Brenn-White, Institute for Conservation Medicine Research Fellow

The idea that the health of all living things and the ecosystems that support us are inextricably connected is central to the work of the Saint Louis Zoo Institute for Conservation Medicine (ICM).  Watching herders guide cattle to forage in the arid Northern Kenyan landscape while impala, zebras and reticulated giraffes graze in the background brings this idea sharply into focus: humans, livestock and wildlife share space, resources and often disease. 

Understanding and addressing the unique challenges that this type of interaction presents in Kenya and neighboring countries requires strong, local One Health practitioners. 

Along with collaborators from the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) and the Smithsonian Global Health Program, ICM team members recently traveled to Kenya to help build One Health capacity through intensive trainings with veterinarians, medical doctors, ecologists and other scientists from throughout the region. As the ICM Research Fellow, I was lucky enough to join the journey, share my wildlife veterinary and epidemiology knowledge, and learn from exceptional instructors, participants, and many others along the way.

My first stop was the incredibly beautiful and ecologically important Mpala Research Centre. Lying in the shadow of Mt. Kenya, Mpala supports a rare pack of African painted dogs, endangered Grevy’s zebras, scores of African elephants, and a myriad of other native animal and plant species. Like many Kenyan wildlife conservancies, Mpala also contains a working ranch that brings cattle, camels and other livestock side to side with protected wildlife.

This made it an ideal location for the One Health Regional Network for the Horn of Africa (HORN) summer school. HORN brought more than 20 early-career scientists from Kenya, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somaliland to Mpala for a hands-on introduction to a few of the many disciplines and skill sets needed for One Health work.

For four days, an interdisciplinary team of instructors from the University of Liverpool, ILRI and ICM guided the participants through a crash course in research techniques for studying disease vectors like mosquitoes and ticks, microclimates in different habitat types, livestock health and epidemiology, and human behavior and attitudes. 

As the fifth and final day approached, Kimani Ndung’u, a Mpala field biologist and new friend, and I were handed the reins with the task of bringing a wildlife health perspective and research skills to the group. This meant introducing the participants to tools they can use in their research to determine which, where and how wild animals are sharing space, resources and potential diseases with livestock and people in their study areas.  

We led the participants on a road transect, identifying, counting and recording the locations of the mammals that we saw along the way. Dung surveys came next, which, while arguably less glamorous, can provide rich information about the animals using an area over a longer period and can provide samples of pathogens and host animal DNA.

As we navigated our way back to camp, Mpala provided the perfect final lesson of the day. Just across the river, we could see African painted dogs running and chasing unseen prey. They had many puppies to feed – a remarkable fact given that a canine distemper outbreak in 2017 had decimated the pack. Canine distemper has caused serious population declines in a number of wild carnivores, both felids and canids, and it is often acquired from domestic dogs. Watching the wild dogs race through the brush as the daylight began to fade was beautiful and exhilarating. It was also the perfect reminder that studying how wildlife, domestic animals and humans interact and share this landscape is essential to protecting all of our health and well-being.

After wrapping up an excellent week, we traveled back to Nairobi where I began final preparations for the next phase of my trip. I would soon be on the road headed south this time to ILRI’s Kapiti Estates to meet up with ICM Director Sharon Deem and team member Stephen Leard. While there, we led an intensive dromedary camel health and welfare training for Kenyan veterinarians. We’ll discuss this in our next blog post, so stay tuned!