I – Vets Gone Wild

The Role of the Veterinarian in Africa – Part I

Two young vets set out with a dream. The wilds of Africa called, visions of exotic animals frolicking in the savannah sunset. Their goal was to marry the fulfillment of their veterinary fantasies with positive outcomes for the animal and human communities they were working with.  The Wildest Trail, a non profit organisation, was born of their passion in 2015. The Wildest Trail is an intermediary body which connects students with wildlife conservation and rehabilitation projects around the world. Barbara Beci (DVM) and Jonas Spruyt (DVM) , its founders, spoke to us about the medical and ethical challenges they face working with wildlife. 

Working with wild animals is the dream that sends hoards of us to vet school. Most of us end up in slightly tamer environments, but not so for Jonas. He left for South Africa as soon as he graduated. There he worked as a junior vet in a small animal clinic before transferring his skills to bigger kitties. 

Jonas and Barbara believe that a solid foundation in small and large domestic animal medicine is the key to success when working with wildlife. They explain that most zoos expect incoming vet staff to have at least 2 years experience in each of the fields of large and small domestic animal medicine. Vets must prove themselves competent before beginning to work with animals who may be critical to their species’ survival. From her previous work Barbara draws interesting parallels between domestic and wild animals. Bison and giraffes are similar to cows but elephants and rhino are closer to horses according to her. However they both emphasize that wild animals are smarter and wilier in finding ways to avoid doing what you want, so preparation and forward thinking will make sure you keep all your fingers!

Spruyt and Beci are familiar with the dangers wildlife in Africa face, especially from our own species. In Namibia it’s possible to obtain a legal license to hunt big game. This includes big cats such as cheetahs. Most of us are familiar with the issue of lions being bred in captivity to be shot by trophy hunters. A survey conducted by South Africa’s Scientific Authority showed that 82% of lions are being hunted and shot by American citizens. It goes on to explore how a suspension on trophy imports from captive bred lions destabilised the industry. This is shocking in how it demonstrates the importance of the US market for trophy hunting and how effective legislation could quickly change the situation. 

However sources indicate that this issue is not widespread in Namibia. In fact, Jonas claims the country is far ahead of their neighbours when it comes to conservation. 

He also highlights the importance of differentiating between government and privately owned reserves and animals. He explains that the story is not as simple as the shocking videos on social media would have us believe. The management of resources and funding in different countries is always hard to grasp. Governments and wildlife reserves in Africa all have their own systems and it’s almost impossible to understand it from the outside.  Some would argue that if the industry is managed properly hunting can have some benefits for conservation. For example, animals are sold before the hunt, so free shooting is not allowed. The animals sold should ideally be older, non breeding members of the population. In this way you are removing weaker animals from the population, who would have potentially died of natural causes soon.  Additionally in theory part of the fee paid for the hunt goes towards the conservation and maintenance of the rest of the population. In South Africa trophy hunting is big business. There are many trophy hunting companies offering a variety of packages to foreign hunters. They charge huge trophy fees (essentially the price of the animal’s life) along with a daily rate to cover expenses.

One such company, African Sky Hunting, charge a trophy fee of $11,250 for a buffalo, along with a daily fee of $395 per hunter. In theory that is a huge contribution to the  conservation of the population, with the loss of only one animal. However no comprehensive data is available on what proportion of this fee directly benefits local wildlife and human population. According to National Geographic, another hunting/conservation programme was set up in Zimbabwe, but has received very mixed reviews. The programme is called CAMPFIRE. The principle is that local communities give up access to their wildlife in exchange for a share of the profits. A paper published by Richard Hasler, of the Evaluating Eden series had the following comments; ” In several CAMPFIRE areas there has been contention and conflict about land use, settlement and agreement about designated resource areas… The dominant top-heavy style of governance in Zimbabwe has also caused problems. It is also true to say that the project can be co-opted and manipulated by local, district, national and international power politics and that has always been the case.”. What we must remember is that the allocation of funds for conservation is often harder to track than the animals themselves. 

Context is key in forming a balanced view of these issues. Cecil the lion was another case which most likely blew up largely due to ignorance. A celebrity lion from Zimbabwe, his death at the hands of an American trophy hunter stirred up a media storm. Walter Palmer, the American hunter responsible for his death received death threats and international damnation for his actions. However, most reports failed to mention that Palmer was hunting legally, he had the appropriate permit and was accompanied by an approved local hunting party.Some would  argue that Cecil was an older lion, at 13 and would have died of natural causes soon. Controversy remains over the fact that he was killed outside of the national park where he usually resided, an area where commercial hunting is not permitted, unless a special permit has been granted. Furthermore these reports failed to point out that trophy hunting of lions in Zimbabwe is an ongoing occurrence. Initially there were restrictions on the carriage of lion parts transported as trophies internationally. However, under Trump’s administration, the number of permits issued for such carriage increased, with 38 issued in 2017 & 2018. It also fails to mention that the trophy hunter’s themselves are not held responsible for ensuring the animal is dead. They are instructed to aim for the brain or heart. Regardless, they must be accompanied by a trained hunter who shoots at the same time to ensure a swift death. 

On a more positive note, there are many battling to protect these animals and their habitats. The Wildest Trail runs a project at Na’an Ku Sê wildlife reserve in Namibia. The project gives students the opportunity to assist in the rehabilitation of cheetahs. Cheetahs become domesticated very fast and lose their wild instincts, so it would be terrible to set them back in the wild where they would die of starvation, Spruyt and Beci explain. At the centre the cheetahs go through a 10 step rehabilitation programme before they are considered for release. Part of this programme is the reduction of human contact. Spruyt highlights the dangers involved for both humans and wild animals when interacting. He says that staff must remain cautious, no matter how well they know a wild animal they will always be unpredictable. You should also consider how you present yourself to the animal. He advises to avoid taking the role of the alpha when interacting with lions. Any wrong move can be seen as a sign of weakness and lead to an attack. He also stresses the importance of keeping  your guard up. Never turn your back on a wild animal!

Poaching and domestication are not the only challenges these animals face. Climate change has an effect on the people and animals that they work with. Drought is a major concern. Previously rains would have fallen from January to March, however in recent years there have only been 2-3 days of rain in Namibia. Drops in the water table, food scarcity and bushfires are some of the hazards that result. The owners of the reserves or rehabilitation centres protect the animals in their care by providing alternative water sources and controlling fires. 

Beci and Spruyt are wonderful examples of young veterinarians who took the road less travelled. Their passion for wildlife and open minds have taken them on a truly global adventure. Communication is key in this line of work. Beci and Spruyt advise a friendly, informal way of communicating. They claim there are many opportunities out there for young vets. We just have to be brave enough to go out and take them. 

For more information on The Wildest Trail’s projects, please see their website!

All pictures used in this article are from The Wildest Trail’s website and belong to The Wildest Trail.

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