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‹‹‹ Contents page for this issue     |     Winter 2012

Humans vs. Wildlife!

Botswana's people address the age-old challenge with new research results, 'one health' attitude

By Holly Kays, a major in natural resources and English, and Neel Patel, a biological sciences major.

"A spectacular oasis of wildlife and dramatic seasonal changes" is how Kathleen Alexander, associate professor of wildlife in the College of Natural Resources and Environment, describes the southern African country of Botswana. The Kalahari Desert extends throughout the country's western border. Chobe National Park in northwest Botswana boasts the diversity of four different ecosystems and the country's largest wildlife concentration, thanks in great part to the Chobe River. Large trees like baobabs, marulas, and real fan palms dot the landscape. The country's largest elephant population claims a home there, as do lions, wildebeests, hyenas, and wild dogs.

The wildlife is an integral part of everyday life in Botswana. Few people around the world, especially those in developed countries, live in such close proximity to wildlife. Tourists may marvel at elephants and other wildlife from the safety of a distant safari vehicle, but the locals must travel throughout the savannahs in constant fear of animal attack. Local community dependence on the environment for food, fuel, medicine, and livestock grazing makes these situations unavoidable.

Alexander's research tackles the many facets of Botswana. Having lived there for much of her adult life, she now returns every summer with her Virginia Tech research team, working on projects in infectious disease and emerging pathogens, natural resource sustainability, human-wildlife conflict, and water quality. She strives to implement sustainability in all that she does, seeking solutions that all sides can support. By informing local residents of her study results, she hopes to empower them to develop their own solutions, which are more likely to result in permanent, effective change.

"When you are doing research, you are affecting the lives and welfare of others," says Alexander. By having the local communities address the outcome of their own issues, she believes that Botswana will be able to secure its independence from foreign intervention and dictate its own future.

Alexander first developed her philosophy of involving the community in her research in the late 1990s while investigating infectious disease in African wild dogs in Chobe National Park. As the country's senior wildlife veterinarian, she was studying an outbreak of canine distemper, which was transmitted from local domestic dogs and ended up devastating the region's wild dog population. Alexander found that human cultural behavior and actions were responsible for influencing the exposure of wild dogs to domestic dogs and their diseases.

Alexander realized that the relationship between wildlife and humans is extremely delicate. While it seems obvious now that unchecked human behavior would play a role in infectious disease emergence, it was not a fully recognized concept at that time. Alexander has applied a systems-biology approach to her research to holistically understand how humans, animals, and the environment interact and allow diseases to emerge. A more simplified way of understanding this is through the term "couple dynamics," meaning that an action in one area will have an effect in another area. By identifying and examining couple dynamics, Alexander integrates human and animal health in her research, taking a "one health" approach.

Empowering communities

The one health approach led to the inception of the nonprofit Center for Conservation of African Resources: Animals, Communities, and Land Use (CARACAL). The organization, based in northern Botswana, began with the purpose of integrating scientific and traditional understanding of the country's natural resources while promoting cooperation between the government and local communities in managing resources. Along with Alexander's lab, CARACAL serves as a model for change with direct local impact. CARACAL's creation supports Alexander's commitment to merging research into sustainable, community-based methods for preserving the wetlands in northern Botswana and improving livelihoods.

The founding of CARACAL encouraged Alexander to move into research on natural resource sustainability. Her work involves a partnership between researchers and community members using geographic information systems to identify resources critical to local communities. Detailed maps are presented to community members to aid in decision-making about resource management strategies. The initiative also includes grassroots programs to educate the region's children and youth about the environment. A youth-mentoring program couples Alexander's graduate students with Batswana youngsters to deliver research training. An environmental club has been created for school children. A craft center helps women develop skills and products and a marketplace connects communities with tourists and income potential from craft sales.

Alexander says that poverty is a primary cause of natural resource degradation. "If you're poor, can you really afford to care about the environment?" she asks. "Are people really trying to connect with you in the context of your situation and its restrictions?"

The education programs are grounded in research, requiring measurable evaluations over time to determine their success. To Alexander, these programs can have two roles: to engage local community members actively in research and to consider how policymakers can design interventions to be successful.

"It's still the same scientific method," she says. "People will look at many of these initiatives and claim, 'Oh that's more outreach than research now.' But we're simply taking the research a step further and giving the community access to results so they can directly choose their own course of action."

The human-wildlife interface

Efforts to empower local communities extend to the human-wildlife interface. In areas where people live in close proximity to big-game animals, there is a constant fear of being attacked or trampled. Conflicts also arise when predators go after livestock or when elephants or buffalo eat crops. This same wildlife resource is a primary source of revenue for the people of Botswana through tourism. Alexander's research gives locals the knowledge they need to find a solution that strikes a balance between the necessities of community safety, livelihoods, and wildlife conservation.

Alexander leads discussions at the local Kgotlas (meeting halls), where community members, together with the village chief and elders, are encouraged to explore traditional means of dealing with wildlife conflict based on their understanding of the reasons behind incidents such as losses. These efforts form the basis for community action plans to reduce wildlife conflict. For example, some communities noted that heavy brush provides cover for buffalo, encouraging the buffalo access to the crop fields. Community members agreed that they should target removal of brush around certain parts of their community in order to decrease buffalo conflict — a sustainable approach to conflict management.

New diseases the ultimate threat

Meanwhile, Alexander has made strides in research on tuberculosis, a growing global health problem for animals and humans. She discovered a new strain in the Mycobacterium tuberculosis complex (the group of the bacteria that causes tuberculosis) that affects banded mongoose (Mungos mungo) — the first new organism to be identified in the complex in nearly two decades.

Tuberculosis typically manifests itself as a respiratory disease when the host breathes the pathogen into the lungs. The disease can be fatal, particularly if the host's immune system is compromised. Unlike most tuberculosis strains, however, this newly identified strain, Mycobacterium mungi, enters the host mongoose through abrasions on the nose. Alexander and her team found tiny lesions on every lymph node of infected animals, regardless of the node's location on the body. This indicated that the pathogen entered the bloodstream after propagating in the nasal area, a pattern called a hematogenous spread. While most tuberculosis species are non-seasonal, causing chronic rather than acute disease, M. mungi appears only during the dry season and generally kills its victims within two to three months of the onset of signs of the disease.

The spread of M. mungi has been fairly detrimental to smaller mongoose troops, which seem to be at greatest risk of local extinction. Many troops at the study site have been forced to fuse together. "Troop fusion is a more unusual finding in mongoose," Alexander says, "and in this instance, disease appears to have contributed to the event."

Mongoose live in close association with humans, and understanding how infectious diseases emerge and are transmitted at the human-wildlife interface is a primary focus of her research.

Pinpointing the pathogen's environmental reservoir and the reasons behind its seasonality may lead to new insight on how to halt its devastation to the local mongoose populations as well as prevent transmission to humans or other species. Alexander is working on identifying the source of human tuberculosis in the region and the role of animal tuberculosis in human infections. She works closely with the Ministry of Health and the local hospital in this effort.

Her work also includes assessing the environmental drivers that influence water quality and human and animal health in Botswana. After noticing a cyclical diarrhea problem in the past decade among local communities around her study site, she is now examining human diarrhea occurrence data for all of Botswana for the past 20 years in an effort to decrease the prevalence of diarrhea, especially in infants and toddlers, and to better understand how environmentally driven diseases can be managed.

Alexander has built a novel research program that gives the inhabitants of the land the power to develop and maintain solutions that work for them. "That's the biggest tragedy of the developing world," she says. "Developed nations come in with interventions that they think will succeed in localities in which they have never worked."

Alexander concludes, "What's important to remember is there isn't a tidy solution. Trying to empower people to address their own problems is a lot of hard work, but in the end, it's the most sustainable solution."


Photo by Risa Pesapane.

Kathleen Alexander works in a lab in Botswana and in this lab at Virginia Tech. Here, she analyzes DNA. She discovered a new strain of the bacteria that causes tuberculosis. Photo by Adrienne Dale.

Photo by Risa Pesapane.

Working with some of her students, Kathleen Alexander (center) conducts a health examination of a banded mongoose, taking samples for later study. Photo by Matt Eich.

Photo by Risa Pesapane.

Photo by Risa Pesapane.