Protecting People, Pets and Predators

Saving the Serengeti

It’s vaccination season in the Serengeti. Throughout the fall, Lincoln Park Zoo–sponsored veterinary teams travel to villages surrounding the world-famous African wildlife reserve where they find residents lined up and waiting for their dogs and cats to receive inoculations against rabies and canine distemper.

These little shots benefit a massive ecosystem. Inoculated dogs no longer threaten to introduce diseases to park predators such as lions and African wild dogs. People are spared the scourge of rabies, and they’re also secure in knowing they’ve helped protect the health of their pets.

“At first the villagers weren’t sure if the vaccinations would help,” says Director of Tanzanian Programs Felix Lankester, D.V.M., who oversees the project. “But now that they’ve seen their dogs are free of rabies and their children are safe, they’ve really welcomed what we’re doing.”

The decrease in rabies in dogs has led to a decline in human cases as well, which have fallen from 150 a year to zero since the vaccination campaign began in 2003. The benefit to wildlife has been no less dramatic. Where rabies was once a leading contributor to carnivore deaths—playing a large role in the disappearance of African wild dogs from the ecosystem—only a single case of wild rabies has been observed since vaccination began.

To maintain that success—and benefit surrounding wildlife—a vaccination team returned to Serengeti’s Kangariani village in August. The Tanzanian team, led by Project Coordinator and Veterinarian Imam Mzimbiri, D.V.M., vaccinated 237 dogs and 13 cats, helping to build valuable immunity.

While pet vaccinations recur annually, zoo scientists are leading other efforts to study the ecosystem and the impact of the inoculations. Wildlife monitoring and disease surveillance let researchers keep tabs on the numbers—and health—of park predators. These surveys have confirmed the recovery of Serengeti lion populations and the return of African wild dogs to the ecosystem since vaccination began.

Zoo scientists are also investigating the impact of the vaccination program on the dogs themselves. Graduate student Anna Czupryna has been in the Serengeti since August, interviewing villagers and counting domestic dogs to see how the growth and structure of domestic dog populations have changed due to the vaccination campaign—important information for future planning.

“Vaccination day has become a positive day in these communities,” says Lankester. “It’s beneficial for humans, pets and wildlife alike.”

James Seidler