Monday, August 9, 2010

Out of Africa

August 9, 2010
The final full day in Africa – I really didn’t know what this day would feel like when I was applying and planning for Enviovet 2010. I still remember Chad telling all of his friends and co-workers about how I would be gone all summer in Africa, and I kept saying “might be” going to Africa. Well, I made it, and I didn’t even have to use my “just in case” antibiotics! In fact, I got sick in Florida and got healthy in Africa. I feel more at home in Tanzania than I did on the Florida coast. I am currently riding on our coaster towards our last lesson for Envirovet 2010. We are headed for a village to learn about the local practices and hopefully buy seaweed soap and shell jewelry. Tonight we have a wrap-up discussion with Val and then have a surprise dinner and dancing at a Zanzibar club – should be a good way to say goodbye to Africa.

Earlier today a group of us got to go snorkeling in the Indian Ocean. We jumped in a boat with our gear and went out about 30 minutes where the water was a beautiful clear turquoise and the floor of the ocean was covered in live coral. It felt so serene being one with the fishes and hearing the sound of my breath under the water. My mind wandered to the lessons at Harbor Branch about coral reef ecology and fish physiology. The underwater world seems less scary when you can see it for yourself. Now I can say the same is true for Africa. Those who don’t make the journey are often intimidated by stories of man-eating lions, malaria, and pick-pocketing children. Now that I have seen it for myself, I can share Africa’s story with the world and hopefully inspire others to experience its mystique for themselves.

Tutaonana, Africa!

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Island Life

August 8, 2010
The first of my blogs from the island of Zanzibar! I am writing from my beautiful hotel room I share with Nia and Asabe with a view of the Indian Ocean. We arrived in Zanzibar two days ago, and I have been really enjoying my time here. Stonetown is unlike any place I have ever seen –narrow streets lined by tall buildings, old and new architecture, crystal clear water with white sandy beaches, a night market where local chefs prepare exotic seafood dishes such as octopus and jellyfish, and an interesting combination of locals and European tourists that leaves me feeling anywhere but Africa.

Abuso Inn, our last home in Africa, 2010
On the academic side, so far we have heard from interesting lecturers about the ecosystem and wildlife health issues affecting both the forests and the seas of this island. Director of the Africa Programs from the Wildlife Conservation Society was one of my favorite visitors, as she spoke about the health concerns associated with the Zanzibar Red Colobus monkey of the Jozani National Park. They have limited information about the disease issues of the animals as well as public health concerns for park visitors. I would love to do research in this area as there is such a need for it. Today we also visited a seaweed farm off the coast of the Indian Ocean. Seaweed farming is a great practice both because it is ecologically sustainable as well as it provides a source of revenue for the island’s women. Many of the local women have begun seaweed farming as it affords them a modest wage and time out of their homes. Dried seaweed is popular on the global market as an additive to food, beauty products, and as a direct food source for many parts of the world. After the visit to the ocean, we hiked through the forest to see the primates on the island as well as the mangroves. While I love the ocean and the beach, it became clear to me today that the place I feel most comfortable and inspired is the forest. I could spend hours among the trees listening to birds, watching butterflies float by, and wait patiently for a curious primate to cross my path.

Getting close to a Zanzibar red colobus monkey in the Jozani Forest
On a personal note, I find myself missing mainland Tanzania. While Zanzibar is absolutely breathtaking and unique, it has many tourists and vendors that make me feel very distant from the humble villages in which we lived and worked for the past 3 weeks. I miss the smiling faces of the children as they ran out of their homes to greet you; I miss the sound of village music; and I miss the African wildlife like giraffe, elephant, and baboon that became a regular sighting throughout the country. I am starting to feel the missing pieces of my heart that I left in Ruaha, Udzungwa, Morogoro, Iringa, and Tungamalenga. Leaving Africa on Tuesday will not be easy. Like I expected, I am changed and hopefully for the better.

Jocelyn, me, Sukuman, and Asabe feeling African in our head wraps

Thursday, August 5, 2010

The People of Envirovet 2010

August 5, 2010
Where does the time go? I am sitting in my hotel room (which I have to myself!!) in Morogoro, knowing that tomorrow we will leave the mainland for Zanzibar. While I am excited to see this beautiful island, I know it means my journey will soon be coming to an end. Tonight we celebrated our milestone with a dinner out at a nice restaurant that served pizza! It was such a treat! While it tasted a little different from the pizza I am used to in the U.S., it was still delicious and a welcome change of pace from the rice and greens that are served everyday both at lunch and dinner.

My favorite African food has been andazi, a donut-like treat that is served at breakfast and during tea. It is great with a little mixed fruit jam and chai. After our pizza dinner a group of us jumped out of our seats and began dancing to the African beats. Before long we had quite the dance party, and I was happy to be burning off the calories I had just consumed. While I was dancing I had the realization that I love these people I have been traveling with for the past 7 weeks! We get along so well and have so much in common, yet we each bring something unique to the group. I laugh with them like we are family and make jokes that only we understand. We have nicknames and handshakes, and we tease each other like siblings. I will miss them terribly when we part ways in 5 days, but I know our paths will cross again. Thinking back to our first introductions in White Oak seems like such a distant memory, and it is hard to imagine these people as strangers. I hope I will always remember their mannerisms that brought me so much joy.

Like Sukuman, one of my “daughters.” This sub-5 foot Thai veterinarian that is so smart yet humble and has a smile that lights up a whole room. She is the cutest dancer and seeing her instantly makes me happy. Favorite expressions: “I’m a party girl in a party world” “Uh oh” and “Yesss”

Sukuman teaching "peace" to the Tanzanian children
Jocelyn, the American vet student that is made for international work. She and I get along so well, and I feel like we can read each other’s minds at times. She has the sweetest demeanor and, like me, has made friends with all of the Envirovet students from developing countries. We joke that we are really Nigerian, Indonesian, or Canadian.

Jocelyn enjoying the best juice ever
Tricia, the vet student from PEI, Canada who is strong-willed and firm on her beliefs of conservation and population control. She definitely has a career in policy waiting for her as she easily expresses her own opinion and isn’t concerned with others’ opinions of her. She was my running buddy and we tried to keep each other healthy, both physically and mentally while on this adventure.

Tricia at the Sanje Falls, Udzungwa National Park
Amelie, the French Canadian vet student from Montreal who was my dedicated roomie for the first 4 weeks of Envirovet. We spent many a night staying up way too late comparing countries, vet schools, boyfriends, and languages. She is never in a bad mood and always laughing. She has a great sense of humor and a gentle spirit.

Amelie in the home of a Maasai mother
Lia and Nia, the two Indonesian veterinarians who are inseparable because throughout Envirovet they have been…inseparable! Lia is another one of my “daughters” and is extremely bright and dedicated to conservation. She works as a wildlife vet for WCS in Indonesia, and I know her life will make a difference. She is humble and sweet, yet says the most unexpected things. Nia is another one of the “chosen” ones (aka, my husband’s other wife). She is feminine and soft-spoken, brilliant and determined. She works for rhino conservation in Indonesia and is an amazing field veterinarian. I trust the rhino’s future in Nia’s capable hands.

Lia and Nia on the flight from Dar es Salaam to Dubai
Asabe, my Nigerian sister and truly one of my favorite people. She is a faculty member at a University in northern Nigeria with a DVM and Ph.D. studying rabies. She has the best giggle and is so easy to talk to. She is a wonderful listener and offers great advice. She has been honest, humble, and constant. She is optimistic and extremely bright. I will visit her in Nigeria someday soon.

Asabe with a Tanzanian girl in the Ruaha Primary School
Today our training involved a laboratory on avian influenza that included chicken handling, venipuncture, cloacal/oropharyngeal swabs, and necropsy. This was followed by a lab on ecotoxicology and a former Envirovet alum led us in the necropsy and sample collection from catfish. He is studying catfish as a biomarker for environmental pollution (i.e., heavy metals, agricultural pesticides, and synthetic hormones). I was so inspired by him as a researcher because he truly is self-made. He found an empty room at SUA that was being used for storage, and he convinced the Dean to let him move in. By doing valuable research, he captured the attention of granting agencies and he has received a little money to make important upgrades to his lab which have allowed him to continue his research which was extremely fascinating and very valuable to the world of ecotoxicology and environmental pollution. I left his lesson feeling extremely empowered, thinking that it didn’t take much to make important contributions to the field. Also, hard work and innovative thinking will get noticed, regardless of how “squeaky the wheel.”

Performing a necropsy on a catfish

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Africa Underestimated

August 3, 2010
One week left of Envirovet 2010 – I am so sad to leave Tanzania, to say goodbye to my friends, and come out of this “bubble” we have been living in for the past two months. This training has been amazing, and I feel so well-equipped to rationalize my chosen career of conservation medicine and wildlife health. While I am not necessarily looking forward to class beginning in a few short weeks, I know the world needs me to get out there. I have to finish my veterinary training and that means heading back to the full days of lecture surrounded by white walls.

Today was a training experience like no other. We started our day by having a hearty breakfast of toast, cereal, hardboiled eggs, and pancakes. Then we drove to the Udzungwa Mountain National Park where we divided into three groups: motivated, modest, and scenic hikers. I joined the motivated hikers and started up the mountain towards the highest point, a waterfall with an opportunity to swim “at your own risk.” On the way up we stopped at a few overlook points and took in the breathtaking views. Udzungwa National Park does not feel like the Tanzania I have seen – it reminds me of the pictures from the Impenetrable Forest in Rwanda where the mountain gorillas call home. I wasn’t too disappointed; on the trip we saw several families of small primates, mainly colobus monkeys.

At the top we did swim, and the temperature of the water kept it short. I couldn’t believe where I was standing, and I knew although I was snapping pictures they simply couldn’t do it justice. Crystal water came tumbling down the rocks, creating a mist throughout the air. It was fresh and clean and was welcome after our sweaty trek up the mountain. After we refreshed ourselves, the group headed back down the mountain. In total, the hike was about 6 kilometers in 3 hours.

The spectacular water falls of Udzungwa National Park

On our trek we were asked to not just enjoy the views, but also take note of the ecology of the park. Afterwards we discussed our findings with the park warden, Paul Banga, who also serves as the primary wildlife health officer on the team. The interesting and challenging thing about this National Park is the lack of a buffer zone between the park boundary and the nearby village. At the base of the trail were small houses and livestock, namely chickens. This creates a stress on the wildlife within the park and a potential public health risk. It also challenges the landscape, as the villagers frequently burn parts of the forest both for agricultural and cultural practices.

I am so impressed with Tanzania. They have devoted almost a third of their land area to national parks and game reserves – in a nutshell, open, wild land left to be natural and preserved for wildlife and native vegetation. But they have so many challenges to preserve these areas: poaching, pressure from villagers and industry for the natural resources, lack of funding, and inadequate manpower. Someone in an important leadership position years ago took note of Tanzania’s unique landscape and decided to preserve it; however, it is so fragile and will require equal tenacity to maintain it. I am so scared that Tanzania’s national parks will not be able to compete with greed and desperation. The world, especially the developed countries that have already lost the majority of their wildlife and natural areas, is depending on Africa to get it right. I am hopeful that those in power in Africa will learn from the mistakes of the developing world. What has surprised me a bit in my short time here is how truly beautiful it is – I cannot describe just how amazingly wonderful it is…it literally brings me to tears. I have also been surprised by how much the local people understand the gift they have and the responsibility they have as stewards of the earth. They really get it, and this makes me very optimistic. Africa, you have been underestimated. You won’t do this alone.

Monday, August 2, 2010

The Simple Life

August 2, 2010

We arrived yesterday at Dipa Lodge after a day of driving eastbound through Tanzania. We passed through the Baobab Valley again and saw the familiar villages and smiling faces. When we arrived we were surprised by our accommodations. Thus far in our tour through Africa we have stayed at very modest places: Riverside Campground in the banda at the top of the hill with the hot water heater and the pump that we had to turn on 40 minutes prior to showering; Chogela Camps where 3 of us shared a tent and 20 of us shared a seated toilet; and the Ruaha Rest House where the shower is cold, the electricity is temperamental, and you fell asleep to the sound of elephants outside your window. Dipa Lodge looks like the Taj Mahal compared to these places. There is a swimming pool, each room has its own elegant bathroom and a porch overlooking the jungle, and the rooms have TV so we can practice more Swahili. Despite all of these luxuries, I find myself missing the simple life, especially Chogela Camps. There we felt most like a family, catching up on our stories and gossip while waiting in line for the warm shower.

The luxurious Dipa Lodge, outside Udzungwa National Park

On the schedule for today was a visit to the Ifakara Health Institute. IHI is essentially a health department for the region and they provide health services such as STI testing, psychosocial support, and rabies vaccinations for dogs. Their staff provided us with a great overview of their programs and research, and again I was impressed with how well they have the finger on the pulse of their health issues and challenges. After our day of lecture we headed to the wetlands to discuss the challenges associated with water scarcity, poor water quality, overharvesting of fish, and water-borne disease. What I loved about this was the “in situ” lesson – we even got an insider perspective from a curious onlooker who happened to be a fisherman in the area and had some honest feedback about the fishing practices and trends.

Tomorrow we head up the Udzungwa Mountains for a hike to a waterfall. It should be a great hike and another opportunity to appreciate the beauty of this country. I am really looking forward to being active and seeing more of Tanzania. It seems a new wonder at every turn!

Sunday, August 1, 2010

The Instinct for Survival

August 1, 2010
We left Ruaha today and headed for Udzungwa National Park. This part of Tanzania is much different from the places I’ve seen. It is lush and green, and water is plentiful. I almost feel like I’ve stepped into the Impenetrable Forest of the DRC. So far no mountain gorillas, so I’m pretty sure we’re still in Tanzania. Our time in RUNAPA was breathtaking and won’t soon be forgotten. We did many game drives and saw countless elephants, giraffes, impala, and even lions. We did a health assessment of the park giraffes and surveyed for skin lesions. We also immobilized free-ranging giraffes and that in and of itself was a memory I will cherish. On our final day at the park we heard from an artist who lives within Ruaha and makes a living sketching and painting the wildlife and landscapes she calls home. She was a fascinating person because she lives amongst the wildlife in the African bush, miles from the nearest doctor, grocery store, or even neighbor. I talked to her at length about her passions and her spirit for Tanzania. I told her that I dreamed of living in the field, observing wildlife, collecting samples, and living simply and sustainably. Her advice to me was simple: just do it. She said it as simply as that. If you want to do something, follow your instincts and make it happen. She then shared story after story about how she listened to her “gut” and how it had protected her and maybe even saved her life. She was inspiring not because she was able to live for 14 years in a national park without electricity or running water, but because she had a passion and a dream and she was living it. To me she symbolized drive and possibility.

To celebrate our time in the park we ended with a BBQ around the campfire down by the river. The stars were beautiful and the weather perfect. We took turns saying “asante sana” and ate a delicious meal prepared for us by the chakula mamas. Afterwards we went to a wedding reception of one of the park rangers. Envirovet helped to pay for the DJ so that we could have a joint party. The bride and groom were gracious hosts and we felt quickly at home with their families. Attending a wedding reception was an Envirovet “first” and I’m sure it was a memory none of us will soon forget. Let’s just say it was a “cultural experience.” Lots of dancing, food, music, family, friends….and did I mention dancing?!? Yes, the music didn’t end until 6:30 the following morning, but I admit my expiration was long before that.

I will miss Ruaha and I hope to return soon. There is so much opportunity for research and collaboration as the park resources are low and the staff small. But it is such a unique place that needs protecting to ensure that my children’s grandchildren will be able to see the same wildness that I experienced this week. If they do, it will surely change them as it has me.

A Ruaha Sunset

Friday, July 30, 2010

Two Types of Giraffes in Ruaha: Affected and Unaffected

July 30, 2010
Life in Ruaha has been exciting, hot, and has allowed for a look into the “real” Africa. We’ve had tsetse flies, flat tires, and barely successful immobilizations of free-ranging wild animals. Our first full day in the park was spent conducting a health surveillance for giraffe skin disease. This exercise consisted of 3 sets of vehicles heading out into the African bush to observe skin lesions on affected giraffes via binoculars. Little is known about this condition but it consists of hyperkeratosis of the skin around the carpal joint, typically on the forelimbs. While the condition rarely leads to mortality, it can become severe enough to affect an animal’s gait, making it vulnerable to predation.

I was the data recorder for our team, and it was very exciting taking part in real wildlife veterinarian activities. We spent the whole day out in the field, from 8 a.m. until 4 p.m. Afterwards, Sukuman and I compiled the teams’ data and presented our findings to the whole group. In sum, the prevalence of affected giraffes within the park was 80%, a rise from the 61% prevalence the prior year. The hope is that this and similar research efforts will shed some light on the etiology and pathogenesis of this disease.

Posing for a giraffe surveillance shot with Sean

Today was also exciting as we got to do an immobilization of two adult male giraffes. We darted the animals from the vehicles and then a team of men approached the animal with a rope. Theoretically the men work together to entrap the giraffe and pull tight across all four legs. I will just say this is easier said than done. With an experienced team this technique is very effective, but it was not without its challenges today! For the first animal I was data recorder and with this duty came the privilege of riding in the first vehicle with all of the important people! I got to see how they selected the animal, how they loaded the dart gun with the anesthetic agent, how they shot the dart gun, and how the animal responded to the initial shot. It was an exciting view and an experience I won’t soon forget. The first male was recumbent for 15 minutes, and in that time we collected blood samples, took biopsies from affected and unaffected sites on the fore leg, collected ectoparasites (ticks), and sampled the feces. We also took vital signs such as heart rate, respiration rate, oxygen saturation, and temperature.

The second animal was not quite as straight forward as this bull decided to not respond to the initial 20 mg of anesthetic. After waiting about 35 minutes for the effect, the dart team made the decision to administer another 16 mg which quickly resulted in the classic “star gazing” behavior and stiff gait associated with a light plane of anesthesia. On the second giraffe I was monitoring temperature and oxygen saturation. It was really great getting our hands on the animals and seeing firsthand the challenges of field immobilization of a free-ranging wild animal. Few people can say they anesthetized a wild giraffe in Africa!

Observing the darted giraffe from the "pop top" vehicle

Tomorrow we start our day with a friendly game of “football” (as they call it in these parts). I need my rest to be competitive, so I will say ‘lala salama’ and goodnight.