Conservation and proper management of wildlife resources throughout Southeast Asia is a significant challenge and an important priority. The pressures of rising populations in a time of high economic volatility and increasing expectations have had severe impacts on the native wildlife of the entire region. Within individual countries, government agencies and often several non-government organizations (NGOs), routinely vie to dominate public wildlife policy. This problem is magnified as the management of the natural resources of Southeast Asia, including the wildlife, is fragmented between countries as a result of political and cultural differences.
Zoological medicine provides important tools to facilitate the proper management and conservation of both captive and free-ranging wildlife. The development of the discipline of zoological medicine has been relatively recent even in the United States, where significant resources have been invested in veterinary medicine by society over the past 25 years. The aggressive development of the discipline of zoological medicine during that time, in the United States and Canada, as well as in Great Britain and Europe, has resulted in the availability of excellent textbooks and educational resources, as well as educational opportunities at a number of veterinary colleges for veterinarians to study various aspects of wildlife health management in depth. This has generated a steadily increasing number of highly competent professionals dedicated to the discipline, many of whom covet the opportunity to travel to developing countries and work directly with the fauna in peril, particularly fauna of the charismatic megavertebrate persuasion.
The integration of these itinerant scientists into the wildlife health management of various nations around the world has had positive impacts on specific wildlife health issues. This strategy has not generally been successful in developing sustained success on the broader scale required to ensure appropriate decision making and implementation of national or regional wildlife conservation programs. Despite the dedication and sacrifices of ex-patriot scientists, they are in essence outsiders, embracing perhaps, but not necessarily transcending, the social, political, religious, and economic forces that shape policy. For this reason, numerous groups are using a strategy of developing in-country human capital by encouraging and training native scientists to be able to generate the knowledge required and make the appropriate decisions to ensure successful programs. Training courses for native veterinarians and other wildlife scientists are becoming a standard feature of exported wildlife health management efforts in developing countries around the world. But there are critical elements of this strategy that must be included to achieve success:
1. The program needs to be recognized as beneficial by both the native participants and their leadership and governmental hierarchy.
2. There needs to be actual investment in the program by the local country from the outset.
3. There must be a long-term commitment to the program by both native and ex-patriot participants as opposed to single event interactions.
4. The ex-patriot participants in the “training team” must maintain the ethic of avoiding exploitation of the host country for personal or institutional gain.
5. The program needs to be designed for the hosting country to take over completely in a planned transfer of roles.
6. The goals of the program must include developing the in-country capacity for future education and training.
When these considerations are ignored, large investments have gone largely unrewarded. A model (the Thailand model, Fig. 1) developed as a collaboration of the Smithsonian Institution’s training programs, Disney Animal Kingdom staff and North Carolina State University faculty, and funded by Disney’s Animal Kingdom, offers a number of lessons for organizations hoping to develop native wildlife health management programs in other regions. Though it is a long-term model in continuing development its successes and failures can be instructive.
Figure 1. the Thailand model
The Thailand model seeks to develop a regional leadership role in wildlife health management and zoological medicine for Thai veterinarians. Thailand was selected for this effort based on several important socioeconomic and political considerations. The country has been politically stable longer than any other SE Asian country. While other countries in the region were ravaged by war in the latter half of the 1900s, Thailand, with its benevolent monarchy, was never subjected to occupation, has maintained open borders, and developed a thriving tourist industry patronized by citizens from all over SE Asia. Today, this economic driver is augmented by a strong high technology manufacturing industry and a diversified agricultural industry that together provide a relatively stable economy. The long peaceful rule of the scientifically trained king of Thailand, and the interest of the queen and the rest of the royal family in the natural resources of the country have encouraged conservation awareness in the educated Thai public. That public is quite large and well educated, thanks to a long tradition of excellent university education including several well-respected medical schools and now six veterinary colleges.
The earliest steps in the development of the Thailand model were initiated over a decade ago when Dr. Chris Wemmer gave the first zoo biology course in Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore. This course began to establish a relationship with the Thai Zoo Organization. The ethic of this course was to impart knowledge and techniques of captive animal management to Asian zoo biologists from the three countries. The course staff consisted of Dr. Chris Wemmer, Dr. Andrew Teare, Charles Pickett, Dr. Eric Dinnerstein, and Bruce Read. After the initial course, several follow up courses were conducted as well as specific work with species of wild cattle. Each interaction, in the initial course and in all subsequent courses and research adhered to ethical guidelines established prior to the onset of interactions that specifically precluded any of the training staff or their institutions from being placed in a position to benefit by taking resources from the countries involved in the program. Specifically, the asking for animals for U.S. display or research was interdicted. The personal relationships that developed over the years of training courses and research programs became the foundation of the Thai model. The specific programs on wild cattle (banteng, gaur), funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and managed by Dr. David Wildt of the Smithsonian Institution, provided the opportunity to become familiar with the complex politics of Thailand science and natural resource management and to establish the appropriate contacts to facilitate more ambitious efforts. The next major step in the development of the Thailand model was driven through the actively expanding government zoo system in Thailand. Partnering with scientists and veterinarians from the Smithsonian Institution, Thai zoos were encouraged to embrace the vision of Thailand as a center of excellence and education center for professionals working in wildlife conservation and management in SE Asia. Support of training workshops for zoo administrators, curatorial staff and veterinarians soon identified a core of capable individuals working in the Thai government zoo program willing to take on the challenges inherent with pursuing that vision.
The success of the early workshops and training sessions depended heavily upon careful attention to Thai political and social conventions and to Thai priorities. A loosely woven consortium of Thai government zoos was developed, and efforts focused on development of a research and training center to be housed at a Khao Kheow Zoo, a large zoo just over 1 h outside of Bangkok, in the midst of a major construction and development phase. At the same time, efforts were made to upgrade the level of equipment and technology at the base hospitals of the other zoos involved in the consortium. Throughout this time, Smithsonian scientists conducted workshops and courses dealing with a variety of conservation and wildlife related topics, including zoological medicine. Zoo veterinarians from the consortium zoos were tutored in advanced techniques of immobilization, critical care delivery, dentistry, reproductive physiology, nutrition, and other appropriate topics, including the care and use of the new equipment they were being provided.
Though the Thai government zoo community had certainly bought into the vision of Thailand as a center for advanced zoological medicine training in SE Asia by the time construction of the research and training center at Khao Kheow Zoo was completed, other important components of Thai wildlife management and education were not yet well integrated. University involvement remained focused on the individual research projects centering around the wild cattle of Asia. Veterinarians seeking employment at the zoos were unfamiliar with even the rudiments of zoological medicine. Demands for the early adopting Thai zoo veterinarians to rise higher in the zoo administration hierarchy threatened to impoverish the ranks of experienced and trained veterinarians. In addition, relations between the government zoos and the free enterprise zoos remained somewhat strained, however, much more cordial than relations with the government agencies responsible for management of the free-ranging wildlife of Thailand.
The universities of Thailand, and in particular the veterinary colleges offered key solutions to the majority of the challenges being faced. Specific efforts to drive greater university participation were initiated. Thailand enjoys six veterinary colleges, five government supported and one entirely private. Four of these colleges are in the immediate Bangkok area. Each college has its own distinct personality and identity, in large part due to differences in the university campuses where they are found. In contrast, all graduate education in wildlife and fisheries disciplines is provided at one university in Thailand, happily, one with a veterinary college.
Initial efforts have focused the dual goals of developing a larger pool of more competent entry level veterinarians in zoological medicine and encouraging a market for these veterinarians, not just in zoos but also in the employ of the wildlife and fisheries agencies and NGOs working in wildlife conservation in Thailand. These efforts were helped significantly by economic fluctuations that were radically attacking the traditional job base of veterinary graduates (pharmaceutical sales) and requiring that veterinary colleges to re-evaluate their teaching missions. The few established faculty involved in zoological medicine in Thailand, including the newly appointed dean of one of the colleges, and a cadre of young, intellectually curious faculty from each of the colleges were invited to participate in the first round of courses taught in the newly completed research and education center at the Khao Kheow Zoo. These faculty and the core of experience Thai zoo veterinarians worked for 1 week with mentors from the United States developing didactic and laboratory experiences that would be taught to a group of less experienced veterinarians the following week. Laboratory exercises were repeated until the new teachers were comfortable with them. Medical issues were augmented with tutelage in use of computer projection programs and exam question design. After a hard week of developing the course and an even harder week in teaching it, all in Thai, close partnerships and bonds were strengthened between the zoo professionals and the university faculty. A society of Thai veterinarians involved in zoological medicine was formed and plans made for newsletters and email list serves.
The next step was for one of us (MS) to meet with the deans of all of the veterinary colleges and explore their willingness to support the concept of zoological medicine as a part of their curriculum. Each dean agreed to send representatives to another weeklong workshop to allow the Thai veterinary faculty to develop a core curriculum in zoological medicine that could be taught in all six colleges and ensure a baseline level of competence in this discipline for all graduating Thai veterinarians. At the end of the week of the facilitated workshop, the faculty had not only developed the syllabus of a core course offered in the penultimate year of the curriculum but also a standardized elective for the final year of the curriculum for those students particularly interested in the discipline. The course offerings incorporate didactic and field laboratory activities and employ the concept of shared faculty among the veterinary colleges to better utilize faculty with specific expertise. Equally important, they call for the integration of wildlife and fisheries faculty into the veterinary curriculum. Just 1 month later, the Thai Council of Veterinary College Deans unanimously accepted the proposed unified curriculum insertion. In the meantime, the first veterinarian hired by the government department responsible for free-ranging wildlife management was hired to work on the staff of one of the government wildlife sanctuaries, and additional positions are being considered.