McClatchy-Tribune News Service
Lincoln Park Zoo researcher Anna Czupryna, left, visits a household in the village of Nangale, Tanzania, to collect data on family dogs on Oct. 6, 2012.
McClatchy-Tribune News Service
Susan Sherman DMV, performs routine dental work on an 8-year-old Wheaten terrier named Molly at Winnetka Animal Hospital in the North suburbs of Chicago on Nov. 1, 2012.
BUNDA, Tanzania — Tucked in a quiet corner of the bustling area occupied by this town’s bus station and central market, the setup doesn’t look like much: a few of the country’s ubiquitous four-wheel-drive vehicles, some men in dress shirts, and a red bucket and a couple of picnic coolers that are at least as beat-up as the trucks.
Atop the bucket, though, is a gleaming array of hypodermic needles, starkly clinical amid the dust and scattered garbage of the market. On the far side of the vehicles is an even more extraordinary sight in Tanzania: dogs on leashes.
Some of the makeshift tethers are rope and some are chain, sudden restraints on a free-range life. As the dogs stand with their mostly boy handlers in an irregular line, they bark and whimper periodically. One dog occasionally challenges another, and the men keep a wary eye on the few animals that seem especially aggressive. When a black-and-tan dog twists and slips its chain collar, there is a sudden surge of vigilance until the boy gets it back on the leash.
But for animals that spend their days roaming and foraging, protecting livestock and helping as hunters, they seem surprisingly patient; the scene, on this October morning, surprisingly routine.
The dogs are waiting to take their medicine, the annual vaccinations that have virtually eliminated rabies, in humans and in animals, in the towns and villages surrounding the country’s iconic Serengeti National Park and in the park itself, one of the world’s great wildlife preserves.
It’s a program directed and mostly paid for by a small not-for-profit organization half a world away, Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo. “Part of our mission at Lincoln Park Zoo is conserving wildlife where the wildlife is,” says Lisa Faust, the zoo’s conservation and science vice president, who watches the proceedings keenly.
She is spending two weeks touring the Tanzanian operation to try to figure out how best to run it going forward. The calculations include finding the money to keep paying for it and the ultimate but challenging goal of passing its control into Tanzanian hands.
For the past five years the zoo’s Serengeti Health Initiative has been injecting domestic dogs here. Begun in 2003 by another group of scientists, the program delivered its millionth vaccine in the spring. Along the way, it has nipped disease outbreaks in the park that were killing lions and other predators, and it has saved 50 to 150 human lives a year in the villages.
“The program is working,” says Julius Keyyu, research and coordination director of the Tanzania Wildlife Research Institute, a government agency headquartered in the city of Arusha. “They are doing a good job, especially the vaccination effort in the Serengeti area. Even human bites are down.”
The Serengeti Health Initiative is one of several projects that have proved domestic dog vaccination can effectively control or eliminate rabies in the developing world, just as it has in wealthier nations. The work has helped push a worldwide effort to fight rabies that has gained special vigor in the past five years, since the founding of the Global Alliance for Rabies Control.
With a toll conservatively estimated at 70,000 deaths a year — almost all in Africa and Asia, close to half of the victims children — this long-known and almost entirely preventable disease is one of the deadliest zoonotics, even as the bulk of the attention in recent years has gone to the likes of swine flu, avian flu and SARS.
The Serengeti program, says Keyyu, “is being used as a model in different parts of the world to control rabies.”
Like many public health initiatives, the anti-rabies effort seeks to put itself out of business by eliminating its targeted disease. But in the meantime, the zoo’s initial funding commitment is running out at the end of the year. When Faust returns from the trip, one of her first big agenda items will be a meeting in Chicago to figure out how the zoo can keep the program going.