Sunday, July 29, 2012

Ebola Outbreak in Uganda

There has been another outbreak of the deadly and highly infectious Ebola virus in western Uganda, in the district of Kibale. A report of July 29 about it appeared in the online Guardian newspaper

Ebola was first reported in 1976 in Congo and is named for the river where it was recognized, according to the Atlanta-based US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 

As a CDC fact-sheet states states It “is a severe, often-fatal disease in humans and nonhuman primates (monkeys, gorillas, and chimpanzees”

It manifests itself as a haemorrhagic fever, is highly infectious and kills quickly. It is "characterized by fever, headache, joint and muscle aches, sore throat, and weakness, followed by diarrhoea, vomiting, and stomach pain. A rash, red eyes, hiccups and internal and external bleeding may be seen in some patients".

A chimp family in Kibale NP. Photo by one of 70 students, not sure who.
Those gorillas and chimpanzees, both of which have strong social groups, live closely together all year long. This undoubtedly helps the rapid dispersal of the virus, which is spread by close contact, not just with a victim, but also on communal food sources and other surfaces. So much so that Dr. Jane Goodall told me that one of her primate researching colleagues in the Congo basin had had her work utterly wiped out, not once, but twice, when entire families of habituated gorillas in her study died from the disease.

Of course grieving human family members also make close contact with their sick or deceased loved ones and hospital workers are very much at risk as there is no vaccine and no specific treatment.

Black and White Colobus monkeys
There are several things to think about, and perhaps the most important source of the outbreak has been skimmed over by either the newspaper or the investigators on site. In the July 29 report a brief mention is made of “contact” with monkeys. I’m sure there is more to it than that. About 8 years ago a case occurred in the most northwesterly part of Uganda when a man died of Ebola. He had been skinning out a black and white colobus monkey he had killed for consumption.

Red colobus in Kibale NP

However, it is by no means just great apes that can be involved.

There is a very strong and growing use of bushmeat in the area.  Traditionally Ugandans were averse to bushmeat, and in particular they did not eat primates. But over the last 15 or 20 years or so a large number of refugees have fled the events in the DRC and brought with them their hunting and bushmeat culture.  Of course relationships with locals have developed and so the consumption of bushmeat has risen steadily. 

For a really comprehensive review of the possible role of wildlife in Ebola epidemiology I would recommend an on-line article by a team from the Wildlife Conservation Society in the Emerging Health Threats Journal.

Canadian & Ugandan students on a forest trail

I made numerous trips to Kibale and other areas of Western Uganda between 2002 and 2009 when I took final year vet students there for one-month wildlife conservation externships. Our first field work took place in Kibale National Park

My students and I had what, in retrospect, were some very close calls. For one thing some of us handled monkeys. But primates may not be the only zoonotic source of the virus. 

There is a body of evidence that suggests that Egyptian fruit bats and even some other species may be carriers. They too are a major source of bushmeat and also certainly carry Marburg virus, which is very closely related to Ebola. So closely in fact that they are almost indistinguishable except by very detailed examination. The produce virtually the same symptoms and sufferers almost always die.

There is a fascinating cave in the Maramagambo forest in Queen Elizabeth NP that used to be part of the tourist circuit and we visited is several times. In this clip you can see some of us getting very close to the mouth of the cave in an attempt to see the resident python. He had surely found a perfect spot to hang out, practically a case of free lunches. The background noise is not a technical glitch. It is the sound of the chittering conversations of thousands of bats.

The cave is the roosting site for those thousand of bats.We all got quite close to them and lots of close-up photos were taken.

In the mid-2008 Dutch authorities confirmed that an unfortunate woman tourist who had had direct contact with a bat in the cave died of Marburg infection after she got back to Holland. 

In a report from the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy it was stated that three miners died of the same infection after bat contact in a different cave in another area of the country. 

Bats don't just roost in caves. Hundreds of them use the trees in the Makerere University grounds in Kampala and as the fast-falling dusk of the tropical evening approaches thousands of them can be seen swooping across the sky as they head out for their nightly feed.

I read about the Dutch woman through the wonderful ListServ of Promed and at once alerted my colleagues in Uganda. One of them, Dr. JB Nizeyi, was the chief in-country veterinarian for the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project and very much involved in our teaching. I understand that the cave in QEP has been closed to tourist ever since.

Bushmeat and the bushmeat trade is an emotional issue. I discussed it at some length in my book The Trouble With Lions. I feel that as Africa’s human population continues to increase the trade will expand. In some countries (Uganda, Kenya) the human population doubles about every 20 years. People get hungry. They kill wildlife for food and for revenge when their crops are destroyed or their cattle eaten by large predators. Of course that gets us into a whole other debate, about which I have posted before, but all of it is related.

Friday, July 20, 2012

The Lions Livestock Wars

There has been a lot of recent traffic on blogs, Twitter, Facebook and Linkedin about lions, lion killing and the overall subject of lion conservation. The latest in a long line of killings occurred just 15 kilometers from Nairobi in the village of Kitengela, where six lions were speared to death after they had killed some livestock. There were two known females and their cubs, two juveniles and two young cubs. They had come from Nairobi National Park.

I say the latest because this is, as I have written elsewhere, it is another skirmish in a long-running war.

What makes this story different is that the animals were speared to death in the presence of three armed Kenya Wildlife Services (KWS) wardens after they strayed into a homestead and killed 13 sheep and goats. Different lions killed another15 goats in a nearby village.

The nuts and bolts of the Kitengela event can be summarized as two conflicts running side-by-side. There is the lion x livestock issue and then the public x government issue. The villagers were angry and vengeful because they consider that the government, in the guise of the KWS, had reneged on the promise to pay compensation at a reasonable rate.  The KWS staff were angry because, as quoted by the Star newspaper, an angry Nairobi National Park Senior Warden, Mark Cheruiyot, expressed shock at the wanton slaughter of the lions.

There have been delays in enacting the bill to raise compensation, and those delays tipped the balance as about a hundred the young men of the village collected together, armed with spears and machetes, and refused to obey the three guards.

The story went world-wide and another report featured on a National Geographic site where comments made by a few readers made it clear that the issues in Africa are simply not understood by people who have not experienced this sort of depredation. I am not going to post any pictures of dead lions this time, but if you want to see them, and also watch three videos, you can visit the site. Under the banner headline EXPLORERS JOURNAL blogger Luke Dollar uses the emotional title THE KITENGELA SIX: Outrage over lions killings in Nairobi. He cautions about graphic videos. 

The story was filed by Dr. Paula Kahumbu, blogger, tweeter and active conservationist with Wildlife Direct . She is one person among several who is trying to get more attention to this issue.

As government procrastinates, human populations numbers spiral on up and residents get ever more angry a solution has to be found. Nobody, except perhaps a livestock owner who has lost his herd, wants lions to disappear, but there is not doubt that they are doing so at a steady rate.  Where forty years ago there were 20,000 in Kenya there are now less than 2,000. 

The Maasai are just one of many African tribal groups have a very long tradition as pastoralists and value their cattle above all else in their lives. Some elders consider the cattle to be their bank accounts. While the Maaasai history included the ritual killing of lions as a rite of passage for young men into manhood in a ceremony called Olimayio almost all of the current wave of lion killing, be it by spear, gun or poison, is for revenge, known in the Maa language as Olkiyioi.

It is not just the Maasai. In December 2011, just after I spent three weeks with my family in Kenya, residents of Kitengela also took matters into their own hands in a 9-hour operation after three lions killed two cows seven donkeys and nine goats in just four days. As reporter Aby Agina of Nairobi’s NTV put it in this video “After enduring endless attacks on their livestock by roving lions residents of chose to bring this to an end. Armed with spears and machetes...” I’m sure you get the drift.

Agina also stated “The killings come after failed attempts by area residents to have Kenya Wildlife Service take action. On camera he wraps his story with “Human wildlife conflict has been and continues to remain a thorny issue in the tourism sector. The killing of wild animals by locals will deny Kenya the opportunity to compete in the global tourism market. Even as locals continue earning revenues from the local market, the question begs, ‘when will this stop?”

Paula Kahumbu is not the only one trying to alter the decline. The organization with the longest history on this battlefront is the Lion Guardians that was initiated by Dr. Laurence Frank of the University of California, Berkley. He has one of the most active predator research programs anywhere in Africa. Frank has been has been studying and trying to alleviate the ongoing conflict for over thirty years in two areas of Kenya. The most high profile is in Maasailand at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro.  You can read the annual report of the Lion Guardians here. Part of that program involved very active participation of Maasai moran who work in just about every aspect of the program and the latest event has been to award outstanding young men who have contributed in several ways to the program at an annual gathering. 

The Lion Guardians program has several components. Among them are radio collaring, GSP and radio tracking of individual lions (and therefore the prides they live in) and education. This photo, taken by the director of the program Dr. Leelah Hazzah, shows moran and Lion Guardian Mokoi using radio tracking equipmentto check on one of the lions in the Amboseli area. 

They have gone so far as to produce a DVD in the Maa language and take it to communities to show them how to deal with their nemesis. One of the key elements of the education has been to show the herders how to protect their animals at night by building better corrals (aka bomas). One way in which lions get at cattle is to panic them to such an extent that they break out of the traditional thorn bomas. Then they are easy picking.  If the fence is robust enough the cattle cannot break out and most of the problem is resolved.

Laly Lichenfeld is another person in East Africa who has been actively engaged in efforts to cut down on livestock depredation. Her work has been in Tanzania and in this video she describes how living fences of planted Comiphora trees combined with chainlink fencing have made a terrific impact as they grow stonger with time.

Quite a different approach has been taken by a bright young teenager named Richard Turere. I wonder if you can guess what he came up with. It involved an old motor cycle indicator switch and some LED lights. . You can of course check it out in this short TED YouTube piece. His efforts were so impressive that he has won a scholarship to one of Kenya’s most prestigious schools

One can be certain that lions will continue to kill prey. That is what they are all about. If the prey continues to be livestock then the lions will also be killed by angry herdsmen. A solution needs to be found, and everyone involved needs to take the matter seriously.

Wouldn't it be nice to think that this scene, a picture I snapped in 1965 in Nairobi National Park could be repeated today without wondering if the group was going to be killing someone's cattle and suffering the consequences.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Killdeer on the Drive

For two of the last three years we have had the privilege and pleasure of hosting a nesting pair of killdeer on our driveway, right in front of the house. Or perhaps they are hosting us. We have been able to watch them from our picture window, and from late May in 2010, through the month of June and this year, up to the 5th July we have had the binoculars handy.

The process begins with the arrival of two adult birds. With little short burst of running they scamper hither and thither, stopping now and then to pick up something from the ground, presumably an insect. Every now and again one or other (there is no sexual dimorphism so I have no idea who is who in the sex stakes) seems to settle into a potential hollow in the gravel and see if the body can be wiggled into a comfortable spot. 

Then things get serious. After a few brief bouts of mating the birds settle on their chosen spot. 

Adult killdeer on the nest. The red eye ring and black and white bnds are distinctive.
An adult about to sit on a single egg

Here they will sit for about a month, changing the guard, just like at Buckingham Palace, every now and again. We have no Alice to tell us about it, or Christopher Robin to go there with her, but we have checked every morning, even before putting the kettle on.  In certain lights it is quite difficult to find the nest, especially if the bird is sitting with its back to the window. Luckily we have no shortage of dandelions on the drive and they give us the marker.  

Our drive way is all gravel so the choice of a nest site has been ideal for these little birds. The eggs are so well camouflaged that one really has to look closely to see the black and light grey mottling and distinguish it from the surrounding array of various-sized stones. In fact one tell-tale is that the three or four eggs all have the same pattern, whereas no two real stones are either the same size or colour.  

Suddenly one morning we see the first chick. Here it is peeking out from under a parent bird.It seems to vary from wide awake to snooze quite regularly, but within a day it is out and about, foraging in the rocks and rushing about just like its parents. 
Snooze time for a chick!

Then there are two, three and eventually all have hatched. In 2010 we did note that the chicks came back to the nest at dusk and snuggled under a parent for the first couple of days. Within another two or three days the nest site has been abandoned and the birds may be anywhere on the drive, in the grass, on the flowerbeds or even out on the road a couple of hundred metres from the original nest site.  

When away from the parents the chicks are on the move most of the time. Here, two chicks, slighly out of focus in the background, are difficult to distinguish from their surroundings.
Sixteen days after hatching we have seen the first attempts at flight. By then the chicks have more than doubled in size and are about half as big as the parent birds.

Charadrius vociferous. That is the name that taxonomists have given to this little member so the plover family. The scientists are right on, and at no time are the birds more talkative than when they want to lure any potential threat away from their nest. 

They also indulge in the characteristic plover distraction behaviour, trying to convince us that they will make easy meat with that seemingly broken wing. It is not just us, as they have grown accustomed to our comings and goings to the garden, but much more important for them is the unwanted attention of crows and magpies.

Of course it is all a sham. Once they have led us away from the nest or the new chicks they will suddenly take off, squeaking away and saying, according to some folks, killdeer. It is a sharp high-pitched note and I cannot get the word killdeer out of it, parse it as I may, but no worries. 

That which we call a rose by any other name and so on.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Rhino poaching - a personal account

I wanted to post a pdf document about a very personal account of the poaching and mutilaiton of a single white rhino named Geza. It was written by veterinarian Dr. William Fowlds in South Africa.

Unfortunately it does not seem possible to attach a pdf of his moving account to this blog. If you'd like to read this sad story let me know your email address and I will send it to you. However it is pretty grim and has some horrible pictures of Geza, still alive but terribly mutilated, so be warned!

I could not even load the very short YouTube video that is embedded in the story, but here is the URL

All beacause some misguided people in China or another oriental country think that rhino horn is some sort of medicinal cure-all. The latest nonsense that came out of Vietnam is that it is a cure for cancer. 

I have posted in this subejct before, but make no apologies for doing so again. My second ever wildlife case was a white rhino in Meru National Park, Kenya and I have had  soft spot for rhino ever since. I have several previous posts on the subject and you can find them by looking on my index.