Making a Difference a World Away
Last month I had the great pleasure of traveling to northern Tanzania to visit our amazing work with the Serengeti Health Initiative, which works to protect the Serengeti region’s people, pets and predators by vaccinating domestic dogs against rabies and canine distemper.
In our field work in the villages west of Serengeti National Park, we visited households that had been affected by rabies before the vaccination program began, which was an eye-opening experience. In one household, we heard firsthand accounts of the terrifying night that a rabid hyena broke into their home—a heart-wrenching story told through two sets of translators (from the local language to Swahili to English).
The family told us how the rabid hyena broke through a protective fence surrounding the household and mauled two girls between the ages of 5 and 7 years old. The animal pulled them out of the house and viciously attacked them. The predator inflicted life-threatening injuries before the adults (who also were injured) were finally able to chase it off.
Rabies is a deadly disease if not immediately medically treated with post-rabies exposure prophylaxis. Getting the injured to a hospital was an incredible challenge in this remote part of Africa. It involved them climbing on bicycles and pedaling for miles—with life-threatening injuries—to the nearest village, where there was a medical dispensary that could arrange ambulance transport to a proper hospital a several-hours drive away.
To pay for treatment and the long recovery, the family had to sell their entire herd of cattle, which was a devastating loss for these subsistence farmers/pastoralists. Thankfully, both girls survived, but they’ve suffered emotionally and socially due to their scarring. It is a terrible story but one that was all too common not too many years ago.
Thankfully, the successful vaccination campaign conducted by the zoo’s Serengeti Health Initiative has almost eliminated cases of rabies in humans within the vaccination zone. Nowadays, such attacks by rabid animals are almost unheard of in the vaccination zone surrounding Serengeti National Park.
During our field visit we spent time with Anna Czupryna, a research coordinator for the zoo who is working with me to study the impacts of the vaccination campaign on the demography and health of the domestic dogs living there. Although I’ve been entertained for the last few years with Anna’s lively email updates, blog posts and stories when she gets back, this was my first chance to see her field work in person. I came back even more impressed with the tough life of a full-time field researcher!
Anna and Chunde Biggambo, her field assistant, work incredibly hard collecting the detailed data needed to complete our research project, often in spite of heat, insects, long hikes between households, car breakdowns, disagreeable dogs who don’t feel like participating and all the hourly and daily challenges that come with doing work in these remote conditions. Their work will have a big impact on how we design the continuation of the vaccination campaign, and I came back confident we’ll get scientifically strong answers to build our future decision on.
One of the highlights of our village work was visiting one of the local schools with Anna and Chunde, where they educate the kids about rabies prevention and the importance of washing bite wounds. The excitement and enthusiasm of the kids was energizing for me—and Chunde and Anna—as was the knowledge of the impact the project makes on these kids’ lives.
We ended our trip with meetings in Serengeti National Park, which was a wonderful setting for reminding us of the biggest zoo tie for this project: protecting the wild carnivores, which we were lucky enough to spot on some early-morning and late-afternoon game drives. For me, the trip underscored all the fantastic successes of this program and the importance of sustaining it in the long-term. If you’re interested in learning more about the program or helping to support the great work we’re doing, go to www.lpzoo.org/serengeti.
Lisa Faust, Ph.D., is vice president of Conservation & Science at Lincoln Park Zoo.