Can Artificial Intelligence Help Pinch Poachers?
31 October 2019
During the official opening of the Hans Hoheisen Wildlife Research Station in August 2010, Peace Parks Foundation, with support from Turner Foundation, made available a donation towards priority research concerning veterinary issues in transfrontier conservation areas. The Research Station provides a dedicated platform for local and international researchers to conduct experimental work focused on animal diseases and related issues at the transfrontier interface between people, livestock and wildlife.
With Foot and Mouth disease (FMD) making the headlines regularly throughout southern Africa, it was no surprise that this disease was the one chosen as the topic for research. FMD is a highly contagious viral disease affecting cloven hooved animals and camels worldwide. While FMD does not cause extensive mortalities, its symptoms have major implications for livestock production, especially in intensive/high producing farming systems, hence the global efforts to control its spread through livestock trade in and among countries.
In southern Africa the disease occurs naturally/endemically in the African buffalo (unless specifically bred free from FMD). The disease does not manifest overtly in buffaloes, but they carry and shed the virus intermittently, posing a risk to livestock in close proximity to them. As this could have an effect in any of the transfrontier interfaces where protected areas that house buffalo border on livestock areas, Peace Parks Foundation and the University of Pretoria deemed it important that, among other interventions, research should be conducted to optimise vaccination against the disease.
© Dr Louis van SchalkwykFMD vaccines for livestock do exist, but these have to be manufactured by highly specialised facilities and using a virus closely related to the natural virus shed by buffaloes. however, owing to a number of genetic variants of the southern African Territories (SAT) FMD virus that exist in specific geographic regions, as well as constant genetic drift through mutation, it is important to constantly assess the efficacy of the vaccine in different regions. Integrating different buffalo populations as a result of unregulated translocation or migration could potentially cause the introduction of virus strains to areas where they differ so much from the vaccine that its efficacy is affected under normal vaccination protocols.
A conceptual framework for the project was drawn up in consultation with a number of FMD experts, regulatory authorities and researchers from the region. The project, coordinated by the Faculty of Veterinary Science at the University of Pretoria in South Africa, will look specifically at ways to improve protection of livestock against FMD through the development of more effective vaccination schedules, using the currently available vaccine, as well as improving diagnostic tests to monitor vaccination and the exposure status of livestock. The field component of the study will be conducted in the Mnisi Communal area, a rural area adjacent to Kruger National Park and its adjoining private and provincial nature reserves. The 30 000 hectare area, of which 80% is bordering on conservation areas that are endemically infected with FMD, contains about 12 000 cattle that are regularly vaccinated against FMD.
Two students have recently been appointed to pursue these objectives through Master’s degrees at the University of Pretoria’s Departments of Veterinary Tropical Diseases and Production Animal Studies.
Dr Iolanda Anahory, one of the Master’s candidates, is a veterinarian and junior researcher at the Central Veterinary Laboratory (CVL), Directorate of Animal Science, Maputo Province, Mozambique. She will be working on the improvement of a southern African Territories Type 3 FMD virus diagnostic test (a so-called Liquid Phase Blocking ELISA). Iolanda will spend most of her time working under the supervision of senior researchers at the ARC-Onderstepoort Veterinary Institute’s Trans-boundary Animal Diseases Programme, through their affiliation with the University of Pretoria’s Department of Veterinary Tropical Diseases. After the two year project, Iolanda will return home and to her job at the CVL, where she is involved in monitoring of animal health, research and diagnosis of viral diseases, disease outbreak investigations and the setting up of molecular diagnostics. The skills and experience gained through her post-graduate studies at the University of Pretoria should enable her to contribute a great deal more to animal health in Mozambique.
Dr David Lazarus, the second Master’s candidate in the project, hails from Nigeria, where he is a senior veterinary research officer at the FMD Research Centre, National Veterinary Research Institute in the city of Vom. David has a great interest in the epidemiology and ecology of transboundary and emerging infectious animal diseases. David’s focus will be on the improvement of the vaccination schedule applied using the currently available FMD vaccine in the region. Under supervision of the Univerity of Pretoria’s Department of Production Animal Studies, David will be heavily involved in the collection of blood samples from cattle in the Mnisi communal farming area, through an intricate sampling strategy in which he will be assessing vaccination efficacy. He will be based at the Hans Hoheisen Wildlife Research Station, where he will be preparing the samples for transfer to Onderstepoort under the bio-security measures required to move samples from the infected parts of South Africa to the non-infected areas, such as Onderstepoort.