Working outside the fence to protect what’s inside

by Michael Grover – director @ Activating Africa

“Four years after leaving my work as the Ecologist in a part of the Greater Kruger National Park in South Africa, I look back and reflect on the impacts and the people that made it happen. It all started with Rewilding Foundation’s Koen Cuyten and two of his close friends from the Netherlands, keen to take on South Africa’s ‘iSimangaliso 4-day MTB challenge‘ 2015 for a good cause. The Rewilding Foundation had supported Activating Africa’s anti-poaching activities before and the dream of Riding for Rhinos was born.

sa2015mtb-277b

Through hard work and many long hours in the saddle (and behind the computer) Koen Cuyten, together with his donors were able to raise almost €4,000 Euros for the communities living on the boundary of the national park. Through the generous donation community members (mainly children) were able to experience the beauty of wildlife for themselves and in doing so, go through a process of education about the rhino poaching crisis at hand. The dissemination of Bongi’s Quest (a children’s book written about a rhino trying to understand rhino poaching) the education about poaching did not stop with those that had access to the game drives, but to all of those that interacted and found enthusiasm from their story.

Community kids going on a game drive

As an organisation Activating Africa continued to work with partners on developing smartphone tools to collect data on endangered wildlife and to use that data to educate people on the border of the reserves.

As time went on, other major threats to wildlife other than poaching started to get noticed. One of the most concerning was the high number of domestic dogs entering the wildlife areas, infected with Rabies. A local study showed over four years 172 domestic dogs found their way through wildlife fencing and entered the conservation area. An alarming 68% of these dogs tested positive for rabies with multiple interactions with wildlife carnivores inside the reserve, causing a major concern for the spread of the virus.

At this time it was when Koen and his passion for mountainbiking and the African bush began working on the second fundraiser, Riding for African Wild Dogs set against the rocky shores of the Mediterranean coast of Croatia: the 4 Islands MTB Stage Race in 2016.

sportograf-75976920_lowress

African Wild Dogs (Lycaon pictus) are listed as Endangered (IUCN Red List) with fewer than 450 in South Africa, of which some 200 presently occur in the Greater Kruger area. Social structure and large home ranges puts Wild Dogs at high risk for Rabies. The solution did not lie within the boundaries of the protected areas that Wild Dogs roam, but actually outside in the villages along the boundaries where this deadly virus was spreading rapidly. Rabies is an acute, typically fatal, encephalomyelitis caused by infection of the Rabies virus (RABV). Rabies affects the central nervous system of most mammals and is generally fatal, therefore the spread of Rabies to wildlife that was previously excluded from contact was highly likely with the number of domestic dogs entering the conservation areas. The focus of the project needed to be three phased, initially it would be an identification of the wildlife most at risk and begin to intervene by vaccination. This approach was only to buy time as the other two processes were put in place. It is not practical, economically feasible or sustainable to continually vaccinate a free roaming predator, so the solution had to be in combatting the root cause; the spread of Rabies in domestic dogs outside in the villages.

This is where the biggest impact could be made. Human deaths due to Rabies are poorly recorded in rural areas but statistics from the World Health Organisation (2012) estimates that more than 55,000 people die each year from Rabies in Africa and Asia alone! This project had grown in great proportion with not only prevention of wildlife loss, but prevention of loss of human lives as well. The 2nd phase approach was education of communities outside the conservation areas about the risks of Rabies to both humans and animals and spreading the word of the need for embracing the State Veterinary vaccination programs. This is easier said than done and due to the pure magnitude of the task has caused the project to grow in vision and scope to include many more partners that have the tools and resources to reach the 1.5 million people in the area.

Without losing focus on Activating Africa’s vision of community conscious conservation through innovation, the 3rd phase was initiated and research into the opportunity to use oral baited Rabies vaccines for both domestic dogs outside the conservation areas as well as on carnivores within the protected area to limit the human contact needed for the current vaccination method of darting through immobilization.

To date the Riding for African Wild Dogs team have secured €3,700 Euros which has been earmarked for the purchase of oral vaccines for trials early in 2017. The process has been done in the US and Europe before, but not to this scale in Africa and therefore the project is reviewing every process thoroughly before implementing. Luckily this does not mean that phase 1 has been forgotten and project partners, the EWT and veterinary staff of the Greater Kruger have been tirelessly vaccinating Wild Dogs over the past six months with a combination Rabies and Distemper vaccination.

The picture story of photos below, taken by Grant Beverley of the EWT, tells of the great work happening to buy more time till the full 3 phase project can be implemented.

Darting the dogs

© Grant Beverley – EWT

Free roaming Wild Dogs in the Greater Kruger are identified through the EWT Wild Dog Monitoring Specialist and vets are called out to immobilize the Wild Dogs by darting them.

Wild dogs being vaccinated

© Grant Beverley – EWT

Wild Dogs are then vaccinated and photographed on their left side for identification through individual coat patterns, this ensures good record keeping and monitoring.

Darted dog

© Grant Beverley – EWT

Blood samples for research of the diseases are taken from the dogs before they are given the reversal for the immobilization.

This project looks to be a catalyst for similar projects looking at not only the wildlife inside the protected area, but the major pressures they face from outside the fence and how education and collaboration can pave way for success.

For now jump on that bike to raise some funds and watch this space!”

In 2017 Koen and his mates will ride again for the African Wild Dogs, this time they will travel to Kenya to race the Rift Valley Odyssey!