Out of Africa: Cooperative Efforts in Wildlife Health
American Association of Zoo Veterinarians Conference 2000

David Jessup1, DVM, MPVM, DACZM; Mitchell Bush2, DVM, DACZM; William Karesh3, DVM; William Lance4, DVM, PhD, DACZM

1Marine Wildlife Veterinary Care and Research Center, California Department of Fish and Game, Santa Cruz, CA, USA; 2Conservation and Research Center, Smithsonian Institution, Front Royal, VA, USA; 3Wildlife Conservation Society, Bronx, NY, USA; 4Wildlife Pharmaceuticals, Inc., Fort Collins, CO, USA


Some of the world’s most challenging wildlife health and management problems, including foot and mouth disease, rinderpest, trypanosomiasis, bovine TB, management of rhinoceros and elephant to avoid poaching, distemper and rabies in endangered carnivores, conflicts between wildlife and human populations, wildlife caught in wars, and international focus on wildlife welfare, occur in Africa. The diversity of diseases and hosts, and intense social, human health, economic, and political problems make dealing with veterinary and wildlife health issues difficult at best. To help meet some of these challenges, over the last 3 decades efforts between African and American colleagues have arisen. This paper recognizes several cooperative programs and efforts, should inform the North American veterinary community of challenges that remain, and discuss the more successful approaches.


Africa is very diverse, in some countries wildlife veterinarians are an accepted part of the wildlife management team, and in others they are not.10 Educational and political infrastructures vary between countries. Veterinary education and access to modern veterinary equipment and drugs varies widely. In advanced countries the intensive utilization of wildlife and the innovation of wildlife veterinarians have advanced knowledge and procedures well beyond that found in North America. Wildlife veterinarians from North America often learn as much from their African colleagues and experiences, as they teach.

The motives for development of cooperative programs vary. Some provide veterinary care for high profile species. Others develop from mutual desire to aid endangered species conservation. Some develop or continue because cooperative programs allow financial support. Unfortunately, financial support for veterinary efforts can be held out as a “carrot” to pressure nations to comply with the political and social agendas of North American governmental and non-governmental (NGO) organizations. Some programs evolve out of common interests in developing management tools, like improved anesthetic techniques. Unique species and sample collection opportunities allow American scientists to do work not possible outside of Africa. American colleagues may in turn provide access to labs and techniques not available in Africa. Successful long-term projects between American and African collaborators are “a two-way street.”

Roots in Africa

African veterinarians pioneered the art/science of wildlife management. Mass capture and relocations of wildlife and boma trapping using sheeting sprang from the necessity to move thousands of animals. Dr. Harthoon was one of the first to use immobilization drugs and document capture associated stress and myopathy in African wildlife. His book The Flying Syringe and Dr. Young’s 1973 book The Capture and Care of Wild Animals preceded similar texts in America.

Examples of African–American Cooperative Programs

Drug companies have provided materials and advisors to assist African veterinarians. In the 1970s Dr. Janssen, a pioneer in developing narcoleptic agonist/antagonists, worked with Drs. Hoffmeyer, de Vos, and Raath on the first applications of new drugs (carfentanil and R-51163) for immobilizing challenging species. In the 1990s, as new alpha adrenergic and narcotic agonist/antagonists became available, Dr. Lance of Wildlife Pharmaceuticals, Inc. of Fort Collins, Colorado, the Smithsonian, and the South African Parks Board explored practical applications for these new drugs. Recent examples include successful testing of A-3080, a very potent rapid acting narcotic, with medetomidine and ketamine for immobilization of gemsbok and nyala with reversal by naltrexone and atipamezole.2,4 These newer drugs are being further tested and are providing better pharmaceutical tools for various capture and transport operations and conservation efforts.

For 25 years, Smithsonian’s NOAHS scientists and colleagues in Africa studied reproductive physiology, genetics, and anesthesia. Initial work on physiology and genetics of cheetah involved Drs. O’Brien, Wildt, and Bush who worked with the Pretoria and Johannesburg Zoos and the deWildt Cheetah Breeding Station.19 This expanded to Kruger Park and included reproductive physiology of elephant, cape buffalo, kudu, gnu, and lion and anesthesia studies on giraffe.1

In the 1990s emphasis shifted to bovine TB, introduced to buffalo from cattle, which is a major disease problem in the Kruger Park ecosystem. Studies included development of antemortem tests for TB in buffalo. Current studies include development of tests for rhinoceros and elephant and the development and validation of BCG vaccine in buffalo to control the spread of the disease.

Anesthesia studies focus on problem species. Carfentanil, A-3080, medetomidine and their antagonists, plus ketamine are combined to develop practical anesthesia. Species include giraffe, impala, hartebeest, gemsbok, nyala, roan antelope, and kudu. Studies on eland, giant eland, kudu, and waterbuck are planned. South African collaborators lead by Dr. Grobler, include Drs. Cooper, Morkel, and Meyer. The Smithsonian program serves as training for interns and associates in clinical medicine, anesthesia, immunology, pathology, physiology, and genetics and wildlife conservation.

A very focused cooperative efforts in Africa is the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project (MGVP). Requested by Dian Fossey and started shortly after her death in 1986 by Dr. Foster and Ms. Keesling of the Morris Animal Foundation (MAF), today the MGVP monitors and provides treatment to the endangered mountain gorillas in Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.3,5 When the program began, the mountain gorilla population in Rwanda was estimated at 248. By the early 1990s, despite poaching and tremendous human population pressure, the number had grown to 310. Around 1990, Dr. McFie began a tourist program in the Bwindi’s Impenetrable Forest in Uganda and a MAF funded genetic study recently confirmed that this population is a second isolated group of mountain gorilla, doubling the known population to 620.

The MGVP policy is that interventions occur when problems are life threatening or human induced, such as by snares. Potential human impacts on gorilla have led to vaccination and education programs. Currently investigations into cryptosporidium and health threats from rodent populations, and the use of molecular techniques on field and archived samples, are being undertaken.

Ten expatriate veterinarians, most from the United States, have participated. Several found themselves in difficult, dangerous, even life-threatening situations. The MGVP also employs a project director (Dr. Cranfield), and two Rwandan veterinarians who assist with field immobilization, research, and education. Through most of the 1990s this region was torn by wars, social upheaval, and genocide but the cooperative African–American efforts to save mountain gorillas and their habitat continued.

Cooperative wildlife veterinary programs are supported by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). Since 1989, the WCS-Field Veterinary Program (FVP) has worked to augment conservation efforts of veterinarians, biologists, and ecologists in developing countries.8 The WCS-FVP has two veterinarians (Drs. Karesh and Deem) and support staff. In Africa, FVP staff has trained wildlife department personnel, parks guards, foreign national biologists, and local veterinarians in techniques for monitoring and protecting health and using veterinary expertise. The WCS-FVP has focused on countries lacking in expertise and financial resources, hence the “cutting edge” is redefined from developing new immobilization or diagnostic techniques, to advancing basic veterinary concepts like health monitoring, preventive medicine, zoonotic or emerging disease issues, and animal welfare.

FVP conducted numerous health surveys on important species such as mandrills in Gabon, duikers in Congo/Zaire,9 gray parrots in Sao Tome and Principe, pancake tortoises in Tanzania, and savanna ungulates (black-faced impala, elephant,6 buffalo, and kob7). If available, local authorities and/or veterinarians are involved to raise awareness and profile of wildlife health concerns. The FVP made major contributions to field immobilization and biotelemetry as well as health studies on northern white rhinoceros in Congo/Zaire, bongo in the Republic of the Congo, pythons in Cameroon, forest buffalo in Gabon, and elephants in Cameroon, Congo, Central African Republic (CAR) and Mali.

Over the years, FVP formed collaborative relationships with organizations including ECOFAC (a European Community funded regional conservation program) and World Wildlife Fund (WWF). Projects focus on health problems arising from interaction between wildlife, livestock, and people. New conservation strategies like buffer zoning, ecotourism, and community-based management of protected areas can pose risks to wildlife if appropriate precautions are not taken. ECOFAC personnel and the Republic of Congo requested that FVP establish baseline normals for potential pathogen exposure for lowland gorilla before ecotourism and research are started. In CAR, WWF staff are habituating lowland gorilla groups for future ecotourism. The FVP is training project staff to monitor gorilla health non-invasively and establishing protocols for preventing transmission of diseases between humans and gorillas by incorporating health considerations for tourists and vaccination and parasite control programs for project staff. The FVP is establishing ties among health professionals in the United States and CAR to address human preventive medicine concerns and linking staff in CAR with MGVP to provide cross training among projects with similar health issues.

The Smithsonian, MAF-MGVP, and WCS-FVP are large programs, which have stayed the course and contributed significantly to wildlife health in Africa. Beginning in the late 1980s a small non-profit organization, International Wildlife Veterinary Services took a different approach by supporting veterinarians already working on health and management problems in Zimbabwe, Kenya, Namibia, and South Africa. Funds raised in North America purchase drugs, supplies, equipment, travel, communications, and publication. IWVS focused on rhinoceros conservation, capture and relocation,11 dehorning, health studies,13,14,18 refining anesthesia15 and defining baselines,16,17 and public education. This strategy allowed a very small organization with relatively few resources to have a relatively large impact.

North American veterinarians have worked in Africa for NGOs as independent contractors. Even with the best of intentions and education, some found the magnitude of the problems, government bureaucracy, social and political barriers to accomplishing goals, lack of communications, and harsh conditions frustrating.20 Some veterinarians returning from working in Africa have argued that North American institutions should critically evaluate the linkages between their field conservation projects and sustainable development.21 Some NGOs failed to obtain or continue government permission for projects, or support their veterinarians when problems arose. As in North America suspicion is present between political/economic forces supporting wildlife and agriculture. Projects lacking in country government support and colleagues, and long-term financial support have a probability of failing. One Africa veterinarian summed it up bluntly. “We don’t need you chaps coming here to save Africa, we don’t need high technology. We may need some help and advice, but we really need reliable vehicles, gasoline, supplies, modest amounts of equipment and support, not interference and meddling from your media and government.” This opinion is supported by the success of collaborations focused on capacity building, long-term relationships and supporting African colleagues. Finally, some have questioned the priorities of current wildlife veterinary work, and whether Africans gain any real benefits, pointing out that more veterinary involvement is needed in basics like natural resource use and resolving conflicts between people, livestock, and wildlife.12


Africa gets in your blood. Once you have worked there and enjoyed its striking beauty, biologic diversity, and hospitality, you want to return again and again. Africa has many wildlife, livestock, and human health challenges as well as religious, racial, tribal, social, and economic challenges. Veterinarians have been caught up in these problems. Some have seen colleagues shot to death, been kidnaped, or held at gunpoint, animals in their care killed, seen local people in abject poverty sick and dying of untreated diseases. Some have contracted serious diseases. Many parts of Africa are wild places and will remain so through most of the next century. The challenge for North American veterinarians who wish to work in Africa or to help wildlife health and conservation efforts is to find adequate support, to identify African colleagues, to understand the social, political, economic, and biologic forces in conflict, and recognize that their experiences in Africa are likely to forever change how they view life and the world. Africa is a place where veterinarians can both learn and contribute a great deal, a place that can make your spirit soar, and can break your heart.


The authors thank Drs. Osofsky, Roelke-Parker, M. Kock, N. Kock, and Gullet for sharing their African experiences and Drs. Cranfield and Hilsenroth for written contributions. For those interested in visiting Africa and seeing what wildlife health professionals are doing we recommend attendance at the joint meeting of the Wildlife Disease Association and the Society for Tropical Veterinary Medicine at Kwa Maritane in Pilansberg National Park, South Africa in August of 2001. This paper is dedicated to Drs. Barkley Hastings and Jim Foster, who left a part of themselves behind in Africa.

Literature Cited

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2.  Cooper, D., D. Grobler, M. Bush, D. Jessup and W. Lance. 2000. Anesthesia of nyala (Tragelaphus angasii) with a combination of A-3080, medetomidine and ketamine. S African J Wildl Manag. In press.

3.  Foster J.W. 1988. A health management and research program for the mountain gorilla. In: Proceedings AAZV/AAWV. 106.

4.  Grobler, D., M. Bush, D. Jessup, W. Lance. 2000. Anesthesia of gemsbok (Oryx gazella) with a combination of A-3080, medetomidine and ketamine. S African J Wildl Manag. In press.

5.  Hastings B.E., M. Condiotti, C. Sholley, et al. 1988. Clinical signs of disease in mountain gorilla. In: Proceedings AAZV/AAWV. 107.

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Speaker Information
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David A. Jessup, DVM, MPVM, DACZM
Marine Wildlife Veterinary Care and Research Center
California Department of Fish and Game
Santa Cruz, CA, USA

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