A new way veterinarians can help conservation

October 18, 2019
Kerry Lengyel

How are veterinarians supposed to make a change for wildlife conservation if theyre not taught? This is the question, Fabiola Quesada, DVM, MsD, is hoping to answer.

Wild Spirit is working with the Wildlife Conservation Medicine Foundation in Colombia to collar and identify individual jaguars in highly threatened areas. (Leonardo / stock.adobe.com)

Fabiola Quesada, DVM, MsD, is the director of Wild Spirit-a 14-day program designed to give veterinarians knowledge and hands-on experience in wildlife veterinary work in South Africa-and the founder of the Wildlife Conservation Medicine Foundation (WCMF), which supports wildlife projects by connecting local grassroots efforts with a global scientific network. Below, Dr. Quesada answers questions about his evolving work.

What is the Wildlife Conservation Medicine Foundation?

The WCMF is an organization born in Africa, led by a network of international veterinarians and wildlife professionals. Its mission is to bring solutions to a grassroots level by creating local and international opportunities and developing the biggest network of professionals willing to work toward the protection and recognition of wildlife. The reality is that wildlife needs well-trained professionals who understand nature and are prepared to educate the world with science and facts. It empowers visionary local leaders and helps them make of wildlife conservation a success.

Conservation medicine is a science that studies the relationship between human and animal health and global environmental conditions. This emerging field uses biodiversity as a pillar and works with an interdisciplinary approach. Conservation medicine-also called eco-health and One Health-understands the impact of the human footprint on the natural ecosystems and how, by breaking its balance, we are stressing not only the habitat but wild animal populations. Among other negative impacts, this is leading to an increase in emergent infectious diseases and toxicity that is not only challenging the survivability of wild endangered species but the prosperity of humankind.

The organization refuses to think that the impact of those willing to destroy is greater than the power of the professionals ready to protect. However, the path needs to be opened up for those who are determined to make a change.

What projects are you working on?

We are working on several reputable projects through WCMF. However, because we're just getting started, much more international support is needed. We have ongoing projects on four continents:

Africa

  • Tanzania: With the Masai, wildlife education, wildlife conflict mitigation, livestock health and human health programs as well as building wildlife veterinary capacity in national parks

  • Gabon: With local authorities, establishing standards for diseases prevention and surveillance for new encounter areas with gorillas

  • Ethiopia: With local state veterinarians, developing a local laboratory to test for diseases threatening wildlife at national parks and at interface areas

  • Democratic Republic of the Congo: Equipping a veterinary clinic at a chimpanzee rescue center.

South America

  • Colombia: Working with communities in jaguar conservation, collaring and identifying individual jaguars in highly threatened areas.

Asia

  • Nepal: Increasing care capacity of local veterinarians.

Oceania

  • Papua New Guinea: Local education and economy for eco-tourism.

How did you start Wild Spirit?

Wild Spirit started, like many projects, with comments like, “This is impossible” and “This is not realistic.” When I first arrived in South Africa, I was a just recently qualified veterinarian with little experience in life and none in wildlife medicine. However, I realized that my frustration during my veterinary studies [about] the nonexistent training on wildlife medicine was shared equally in most veterinary faculties throughout the world.

The broad question was now, “How are veterinarians supposed to make a change for wildlife conservation if they're not taught and they're far from the field?”

I decided to turn this frustration into an opportunity. Together with a mentor and the collaboration of wildlife veterinarian Brendan Tindall, BVSc, we created the first wildlife veterinary course based on wildlife medicine and conservation knowledge: “Introduction Into African Species in the Wild,” about chemical immobilization, capture techniques, reproduction, infectious diseases, animal behavior, local African culture challenges faced by conservation medicine and the way forward.

Where is Wild Spirit today?

We are recognized by numerous universities globally, and more than 250 veterinarians, nurses and students have completed our programs. For the most passionate delegates, this experience has helped them to understand the responsibility that we veterinarians have in the protection of wildlife conservation. Nothing will be possible without them, and nothing will make sense if they don't decide to keep training themselves and push for change in wildlife conservation medicine.

What should a veterinarian expect if they take a Wild Spirit course?

Wild Spirit offers a 14-day training and hands-on wildlife veterinary program in South Africa led by experts in the field and designed for international veterinarians, nurses and students. This experience brings delegates an extensive understanding of the wildlife veterinary work on the ground and the challenges faced by conservationists. The structure is based on standard modules: wildlife veterinary medicine, including basic physiology, chemical immobilization and capture techniques on African species; infectious diseases; care of wild animals in rehabilitation centers and captive environments; One Health and the human-wildlife conflict; wildlife population management; and the application of biotechnology of reproduction on endangered species.

The practical work is based on the veterinarian work that needs to be done, meaning that our final itinerary is only known after real cases of wildlife translocations are decided. The activities are developed where wildlife occurs in South Africa-in national parks, natural game reserves, wildlife ranches or the captive environment.

The success of the course is based on a 50-50 relationship. Our leading veterinarians commit to reach the objectives and share as much knowledge as possible, but our delegates must be easygoing people who are willing to learn, get involved and understand that wildlife work in Africa might not be the most comfortable scenario. But this is not only a veterinary program-this is a lifetime experience, a time to enjoy and have fun among colleagues from all over the world with a common passion.

What's on the horizon for Wild Spirit?

We realized that our 14-day program is an excellent introduction to wildlife conservation medicine, but once our delegates leave, there's system to continue their interest in wildlife conservation medicine. Therefore, we're presenting proposals to universities to satisfy demand and include more in their curriculum. We're hoping that wildlife conservation medicine will become a subject of common knowledge among veterinarians.