Month: May 2013

Guest Post from Dan Haydon: hosting guests from Tanzania National Parks and the Tanzanian Wildlife Research Institute

Julius Keyyu Matthew Maziku

Julius Keyyu and Matthew Maziku

For the last few days we have been hosting Alain Kijazi and Simon Mduma, respectively the Directors-General of Tanzania National Parks (TANAPA) and the Tananzian Wildlife Research Institute (TAWIRI).   Forty percent of Tanzania is protected in some form or other, and almost 6% of the countries land area is fully protected in National Parks.  Tanzania contains some of the planets most spectacular ecosystems and these organizations are world leaders in biodiversity conservation. Alain and Simon addressed the University on the subjects of Tanzanian conservation and development, and the role of research in devising effective conservation policy.  They were joined by Julius Keyyu, the Director of Research at TAWIRI, and Markus Borner, formerly the African based projects Director for Frankfurt Zoological Society (who has now joined Glasgow as an honourary professor), and we held discussions with our head of college and the Principal about how researchers at the University of Glasgow might be able to help these organisations address knowledge gaps.  While there are some pressing questions regarding the threats of infectious disease, the genetic management of largely closed populations, and some thorny questions about the design of pragmatic but statistically rigorous monitoring programs, what struck me was the interdisciplinary nature of the most important challenges: human wildlife conflicts at the edges of parks, the control of poaching, the development of eco-tourism, and perhaps most starkly the management of water resources, and environmental change more generally.  To properly address these questions we will need to combine the expertize of microeconomists, social scientists, geographers and hydrologists as well as biologists and epidemiologists.  These experts all agreed that while tourism is big business in Tanzania, generating over 7% of GDP, conservation is unlikely to do much to help impoverished communities living in and around protected areas.  Rather depressingly, there was little confidence that the interests of conservation would be served through poverty reduction.  Apparently experience suggests that better-off communities are even more environmentally destructive than poorer ones.  However, it is not a well-researched area, and my feeling was that we just have to think harder and more creatively to find win-win solutions.

Alain Kijazi

Alain Kijazi

Another retrospectively all too obvious point is the disconnect between what better resourced ‘northern’ funding agencies think they want to fund, and the national priorities of countries like Tanzania.  All too often I feel that the cart is put before the horse, with ‘northern’ research agenda’s driven through relatively traditional intra-disciplinarily endogenously promulgated thinking, rather than the identification of research that could provide an evidence-base for policies that would actually make a difference somewhere.

Simon Mduma

Simon Mduma

Where do we find researchers that are imbued with a real understanding of the developing country priorities, and that have these mixtures of skills, and the necessary outlook to conduct such interdisciplinary research?  With great difficulty I think.  Young scientists from these developing countries are surely the best bet – having spent their lives so much closer to these issues.  We discussed how we could fund and manage a joint masters and doctoral program with the combined inputs of Tanzanian institutions and ‘global partners’ both in the UK and the US (some initiatives are already under way with Penn State University and the Paul Allen School of Global Animal Health at Washington State University).  The newly founded Nelson Mandela African Institute of Science and Technology in Arusha provides an excellent and academically broad base for such a program.  Now we need to go and find the funding.

Some Boyd Orr Centre Events – Getting together, getting educated and getting zombies

Just thought I’d update the locals on some things happening associated with the Boyd Orr Centre. On Friday (May 31st) there is the ‘Boyd Orr Centre Away Day’ which has been organised by Louise Matthews with the help of Minnie Parmiter and Richard Orton and as we did last year, will be held in the Hilton Hotel in the West End of Glasgow. This is a chance for us to meet up as a group, get an opportunity to see what others are doing (both via talks and posters) and in general see more about what the Boyd Orr Centre as a whole is about. As with last year, we’ve invited one ‘extra-mural’ speaker; Adam Kleczkowski from Stirling University.

Glasgow Science FestivalOn June 6th, in association with the Glasgow Science Festival, Shaun Killen (who is a behavioural physiologist and a member of the Institute of Biodiversity Animal Health and Comparative Medicine to which many of us belong) and I will be part of ‘Zombie Science Night’ at Nice’N’Sleazy down on Sauciehall St in central Glasgow. We’ll being following on from a comedy science presentation from the Zombie Institute for Theoretical Studies with a Q&A on the science behind the zombies. The evening will wrap up with a viewing of the original Sam Raimi ‘Evil Dead’ movie.   Btw, Shaun is definitely the funny one – I’ll have to play the straight man and hope for the best!

This will be followed up by a Boyd Orr Centre exhibit at the ‘Science Sunday’ event on June 9th, which is a big opportunity to engage with the general public. Last year one of the most popular things we did was a competition using the Sneeze Game, an online game where you infect others with a disease and see how far it spreads.

epicThis year we’ll have some new stuff up, including  posters displaying the work of the ‘Scottish Centre for Animal Disease Outbreaks’ also known as ‘EPIC‘ which is a consortium of institutions mandated to provide advice to the Scottish Government on infectious diseases of livestock problems in Scotland, and to which the Boyd Orr Centre makes a significant contribution. There will be a competition based on a quiz where you put yourself in the shoes of a Government policy advisor – for example ‘Foot-and-mouth disease – do you vaccinate or not?’ We’ll also have at least one poster up explaining the true science behind zombies. zombiesSo a lot of things going on, if you are in Glasgow please come down to the Science Festival and support it. And do come say hello … we’ll be waiting for you …

Bovine Tuberculosis – a workshop with views from around the world

btb workshopEarlier this month the Boyd Orr Centre hosted an international workshop on bovine Tuberculosis in cattle and wildlife. First of all, a big load of thanks to Lili Salvador who did most of the organising, and to Hannah Trewby, Joseph Crisp, Tom Doherty, Michael Deason all of whom helped out. We’ll be publishing a full summary soon on the Boyd Orr Centre website, but I’ll record a few first impressions here. We ran four sessions over two days, on the first day these were (i) Risk-based surveillance for bovine TB, with a framing talk by Paul Bessell from the Roslin Institute, and (ii) When is a reservoir host a reservoir host? with framing talks from Clare Benton (AHVLA, Woodchester Park) and Aurelie Courcoul (ANSES in the Maison-Alfort Laboratory for Animal Health) on the first day. On the second day, there was a presentation of results from a workshop survey followed by a discussion of social factors and in particular the role of farmer behaviour. In the final session, Michael Deason presented some of our preliminary results on an extended study looking at whole genome sequencing of Mycobacterium bovis (the causative agent of bovine TB) in Northern Ireland. A few things struck me during the meeting. First of all, it was really striking just how strong the relationship was in France between bovine TB infected wildlife (not badgers, btw, though there are badgers in France) and infected cattle in specific regions. Second, there was a strong consensus of how important the role of the farmer is in the control of the disease, with considerable discussion about how to include farmers in the entire process of bovine TB control. An interesting comment came from Marian Price-Carter, who was visiting us from AgResearch in New Zealand. According to her, in NZ, direct engagement with the farming community has been very successful in helping to move towards eradicating bovine TB. Darrell Abernethy (formerly from DARD in Northern Ireland, but now at the University of Pretoria) pointed out that he did not see the need to study farmer behaviour, since we already know what they are doing and why but instead he thought that we need to create a collaboration to improve communication with the farmers, and understand not just their behaviour but their most important needs and points of view in order to improve disease control. A further comment came from Willie Wint (Environmental Research Group Oxford), who said that in a very different context, for projects he’s been involved with in developing countries, surveys of behaviour only worked where people engaged in a proper dialogue with the local population, rather than simply ‘studying’ them. This reminds me of the concept that every person behaves “rationally”. This may seem like nonsense, but all it really says is that, within the context of an individual’s behavioural drivers, and taking into account the information they have available at the time, then by those rules each person behaves in a rational fashion – that is they make a wrong decision, but those decision will be unbiased around their ‘correct’ decision. Putting this in other words, in a polarised debate such as the one that centres around bovine TB in Great Britain, a proper understanding of the drivers of behaviour and why people make the decisions they do is a vital step forward, though one that all too often we fail to make.

In the final session, we discussed ways in which whole genome sequencing could change our understanding of the epidemiology of bovine TB in Britain and Ireland. This technology is increasingly becoming one of the most important tools for understanding and controlling diseases caused by viruses such as pandemic flu, foot-and-mouth disease and HIV/AIDS, and is now becoming cheap enough to use for bacteria. It was used, for example, to refine our understanding of the E. Coli outbreak in Germany a couple of years ago. Because of reducing cost, we are on the verge of being able to extract the entire genetic code (or close enough to this as not to matter) of bacteria taken from every animal we can it from; this means tracing changes in the genetic code down to the herd and badger social group level, and in some cases down to the animal level. And a detailed understanding of how the disease spreads, such as we’ve not seen before. Here in Glasgow we were the first to apply the technology to bovine TB in cattle and badgers, and while our study was small, it showed the potential to fundamentally change our understanding of the transmission amongst cattle and badgers. Especially due to the controversy surrounding the evidence base for understanding bovine TB in Britain, getting the science right is critical. Watch this space for further developments …