Friday, July 29, 2016

Pit latrine Sampling and Household surveys

The following images were captured during a recent household survey and pit latrine sampling by members of Virginia Tech's Alexander Research Group. Reaching out to the community and working with them in this way is important not only in terms of gathering data, but in keeping them informed and appraised of developments and approaches and in helping to improve community health and well-being. 

Issues of health and sanitation are extremely sensitive, both ethically and culturally. The members of the Alexander Research Group must strike a careful balance at all times between scientific efficacy and consideration of these factors. Here are some shots of the team in action: 

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Dr Alexander attends SADC workshop

Last week Dr Alexander attended the SADC Ministerial Workshop on Illegal Trade in Wildlife, a high-level discussion around the issue of illegal poaching and related trades in illegal wildlife products.

The objective of this workshop was to encourage and facilitate cooperation on these complex interrelated issues – a call for grater collaboration was one of the workshop's key outcomes in fact.

These are issues that affect the entire Southern African region, and therefore can not be address in isolation.

The workshop, attended by senior government officials as well as representatives from the private sector including research and conservation organisations and community groups was roundly hailed as a success, and Dr Alexander reports that the conversations and panels she participated in were worthwhile, productive and offered up some great new ideas and approaches.  

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Adventures With Professor Tooth

Last week I was once again lucky enough to spend some time in the field with renowned hydrogeomorphologist, Professor Stephen Tooth of Aberystwyth University. Among other things (he is a very very busy man), he is currently working with Dr Kathleen Alexander and her Alexander Research Group on a study of the extremely complex and relatively under-examined Chobe-Zambezi River System in North-Eastern Botswana, the Zambezi Region (formerly Caprivi Strip) of Namibia, and South-Western Zambia.

The Alexander Research Group are attempting to gain a better understanding of the manner in which this system functions, including its annual flood cycles, sedimentology, vegetation patterns, ecosystem services and the dynamics (including agriculture and other human and non-human inputs) which affect the quality of the water circulating within it, and therefore, by extension, affect the health of the human and wildlife populations which depend upon it. This dryland wetland system is not only poorly understood, it is also incredibly unique and equally important from the perspective of conservation and biodiversity – some of the richest and most diverse ecosystems on earth depend upon it.

Professor Tooth is bringing his expertise as a hydrogeomorphologist to bear on these issues by helping to understand – perhaps counterintuitively – the manner in which this system changes and has changed over time. To him a landscape like the area around the Chobe and Zambezi Rivers is not only a picture of the present, but is positively riddled with clues to its past. To be out in the field with him is a bit like entering a time-machine of sorts, as he combs through it all exposing little bits of evidence here and there which together paint a picture of a system continuously changing, water-courses altering, sediments being deposited and washed away, lakes forming and disappearing thousands of years later. There is nothing static about this view, nothing permanent, and it is absolutely fascinating in its extraordinary scope and complexity.

Last week I went out with him to look for two things in particular. The first of these was the bank of a now extinct lake, which lay along the present-day course of the Chobe River some 40,000 years ago. We were looking for a certain kind of rocky outcrop along the riverbank, itself composed of the sediment of from this ancient body of water. The rock is called calcrete, and it can be found along a stretch of the Chobe River on the Botswana side, close to a rest-point in the Chobe National Park called Serondela (which also has an interesting history – it was the hub of the old Chobe timber industry). This rock is not only interesting for the fact that it is composed of the sediment from this ancient lake; it also actually contains the shells of two snail species which lived in it.

I went looking for 40 000 year-old snail shells with Professor Tooth, in other words; and after combing hundreds of meters of calcrete banks around Serondela, we finally came across a spot containing the fabled shells – or at least, a single shell to begin with. Once we'd found this first shell, we began to find others, more and more of them until we realized we were standing on a real trove of them. We even found one or two specimens that had broken free of there calcrete casings and were able to hold them, beautifully intact, in our hands. What's more, the area around these shells was littered all about with ancient stone tools, cutting blades of quartz and other colourful stones with clear indications of knapping. We'd found the Southern Bank of the ancient lake, and traces of ancient human habitation to boot!

The following day we went out again, this time on the Chobe River itself. This time we were looking for something a little more recent in geological terms, but something no less fascinating. We were looking for a hydrogeological feature known as a Scroll Bar – a sedimentary deposit which accumulates as a river gradually alters its course, wearing away the bank on the outer edge of a curve, and depositing sediment on the inner edge. This process is quite well known – it is the same process which can cause the formation of ox-bow lakes, and is the greatest driver behind the subtle but continuous changes in the way rivers undulate.

We had our eye on a certain section of the river already; the real challenge lay in working out how to go about sampling the scroll bars Professor Tooth had identified using satellite imagery (for reasons I'll describe below). We had to contend with several challenges, the first being the manner in which we might access these sites, and the second being the abundant large animals like elephant, hippo, and buffalo, which frequent the area and might make any attempt to sample the formations an exceedingly dangerous undertaking.

Scroll Bars are the curving lines visible along this stretch of river bank, stacked from oldest on the right to youngest on the left.
The reason we had to work out a sampling strategy is that, while these hydrogeological features are relatively easy to identify once you know what you're looking for [see embedded map, depicting the area we examined], they tell a far more interesting and complex story if you're able to date them. It is one thing to be able to tell that a river has altered its course in such and such a way; it is quite another to be able to draw an accurate time-scale of these events, to be able to say that the river looked like this five thousand years ago, and this is how it's changed since and when. We could then tell how fast this process is happening, for example, or, by correlating this data with other data sets, we might be able to discern other factors at play. We might, for example, begin to look at the manner in which floods of varying intensities either favour or inhibit the formation of these interesting features of the hydrogeological landscape.

So we had to figure out a way of getting to them in the first place, and then of surviving while we did so in the second. We found them easily enough – they are, as I say, quite easy to spot when you know what to look for – and, surrounded on all sides by the spoor and droppings of quite big and quite dangerous animals, actually clambered atop several of them. Menaced by crocodiles and taunted by troops of baboons, careful all the while of potential lurking hippo and buffalo, we surveyed the area. We found several places we might later use to gain access to the layered Scroll Bars, and we made a detailed assessment of the outer bank too, which might, in much the same way, allow us to determine the age of the flood plain through which the river meanders and which it slowly but surely eats away.

All told these excursions were a great success. Professor Tooth managed to find and survey the two hydrogeological features he was most interested in, and I had the excellent fortune to accompany him while he did it. All of this helps the Alexander Research Group to develop a more nuanced understanding of the processes and dynamics at play in the Chobe-Zambezi River System too, and will allow us in the near future to begin collecting the samples we'll need to begin the process of dating the changes in the Chobe River's course and assessing the ages of the surrounding floodplains.  

Friday, March 18, 2016

Alexander research group hosts co-investigators from New York and Wales

Over the past few days, the team CARACAL and the Alexander research group have played host to two of the key collaborators on several of our ongoing projects (most notably our Banded Mongoose disease ecology project and our work on the Chobe River system), Doctors Jeffrey Shaman of Columbia University in New York and Stephen Tooth of Aberystwyth University in Wales.

Dr Shaman is an expert in the complex relationships between climatic conditions and the spread of infectious diseases, which is a key consideration in our work on antibiotic resistance along the Chobe River system as well as in our ongoing work on human health in the Chobe region and our work on M. mungi, the novel pathogen that was discovered by the Alexander Research Group in the early 2000's and which has since been a focal point of our research activities in Northern Botswana. Dr Shaman is a renowned infectious disease modeler and forecaster, and his contributions in the areas described above will help us to gain a detailed and nuanced understanding of some of the key determinants of the behaviour and the spread of pathogens and zoonoses across the rich ecosystems and communities of the Chobe region.

Dr Tooth, on the other hand, is an authority on the functions and behaviors of dryland river systems, the crucial habitats they provide, and the extraordinary hydrological processes which underpin their existence. He is also an expert on those unique and surprising ecosystems – dryland wetlands; exceedingly rare, even more important ecologically, and inclusive of much of the vast floodplains and backwaters which exist around the Upper Zambezi and the Chobe River. His previous work has focused on the arid and semi-arid inland regions of Australia and South Africa, and he is currently bringing his experience to bear on the under-examined and, conversely, vitally important dynamics of the interconnected Chobe and Zambezi Rivers, assisting the Alexander Research Group in their efforts to better understand the geomorphology, sedimentology and fluvial mechanics which together determine the characteristics of these watercourses and the manners in which they continuously change, both seasonally and in terms of the comparatively far grander scale of geological time.

This visit was useful for a number of reasons, not least of which being the opportunity to acquaint the two of them with the places, processes and systems which they will do so much to understand and conserve in the months and years to come. It is difficult to overstate the value of time spent in the field with experts such as Dr Tooth and Dr Shaman and the profound impact this can have on the way we perceive the systems and processes which the members of CARACAL and the Alexander Research Group spend so much of their time studying.

We therefore thank Drs Shaman and Tooth for sharing their valuable time and expertise with us and look forward to what will no doubt be a productive and mutually beneficial relationship as we move forward together. It was a real pleasure having both of them here, and we hope that they'll visit again soon!

Monday, January 11, 2016

2016 - An Exciting Year Ahead

The year 2015 was an exciting one for the team at CARACAL and Virginia Tech's Alexander Lab. We had more on the go than ever before including a range of projects, outreach activities, a vibrant education and outreach program, hours upon hours of time in the field, data and sample collection and processing in our two labs on two continents, meetings with ambassadors, researchers, United Nations representatives and so much more.

But our work is far from done and 2016 looks set to be an even more exciting and eventful year. Our work on the Chobe River system continues apace, and looks set to be expanded upon as we add a whole new range of data sources and surveying techniques to our already extensive program.

The Chobe River itself is at it's lowest ebb at the moment, with some suggestions that it has not been this low for 25 years (No, despite what you may have heard, Victoria Falls has not dried up, but this is causing various problems downstream). There is some concern as to the volume of this year's flood too, with poor rains so far in the wet season indicating a potentially weak flood pulse. This, combined with the already massive concentrations of large game along the river and the probable increase resulting from a lack of inland grazing means that the Chobe River system is likely to be under a lot of pressure over the year ahead, with increased competition for grazing and higher faecal loads across the entire system. We're going to be very busy!

Fortunately we will be well-equipped to deal with theses challenges as our custom designed water-sampling boat is just about ready for her maiden voyage! She will be fitted out with state-of-the-art water-quality monitoring, mapping, navigation and surveying technology, and will help us to gain a better understanding of this crucial ecosystem than we've ever had before.

Our education and outreach activities look set to push the bounds of what is possible too, with an exciting new program in the works that will attempt help tackle a range of devastating social and community problems too (watch this space). Our Conservation Club, which entails working with children from several local schools will continue as before, with our education team working hard to foster a sense of ownership and investment in the surrounding ecosystem among the Chobe District's next generation of leaders, activists, entrepreneurs and conservationists. Last year was an overwhelming success, which we will continue to build upon and expand as our programs in the region proceed.

So there you have it – 2016 looks set to be an incredible and an incredibly important year for all of us. We hope it is for you too!

[Photo © Warwick Hendry]

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Fieldwork in pictures - an hour in the life of a researcher

These images were captured this morning during data collection in Kasane, Northern Botswana. The Virginia Tech/CARACAL team are pictured here hard at work collecting fly traps left out overnight and setting up fresh ones in and around the homes of community members in our study area. This kind of work is challenging because of the very personal and private spaces our team are required to access in order to carry out their fieldwork. They can console themselves in the knowledge that the findings produced by this study (which is a Conservation, Food and Health funded project) will directly improve the lives and conditions of the people in this part of Kasane. It is also part of a broader research program being carried out by Virginia Tech's Alexander Lab which seeks to better understand the relationships between human and environmental health in the region.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Thirst-lands: Water Quality and Availability in the Chobe Region

IN a country as dry as Botswana, perennial water sources assume a naturally heightened significance. Each year during the dry season, concentrations of game along the Chobe River rise to almost unbelievable levels - making this place one of the world's most popular tourist destinations. The region's importance as a wildlife sanctuary could hardly be overstated, in fact, particularly in terms of species like elephant, populations of which are in steady decline across much of the rest of the continent. 

The relative abundance of these animals present a number of challenges, though. One of these was highlighted in a recent paper by J. Tyler Fox and Dr Kathleen Alexander, published in the journal PLOS ONE, in which they argue that these seasonal concentrations of game - particularly large herbivores such as elephant - can result in the deterioration of water quality. 

These findings, based on three years of water quality monitoring and data collection along the course of the river, are surprising given the fact that we would expect a greater correlation between human activities such as agriculture and industry and declines in water quality than anything resulting from the presence or activities of wildlife populations - particularly in an area where human population densities are growing as fast as they are in the Chobe region. 

In an interview with Science Daily, Fox described these findings as follows: "Activities of elephants and other large animals play an essential role in maintaining the long-term integrity of river corridors in southern Africa, adding nutrients and increasing patch heterogeneity of the riparian landscape. In areas where wildlife concentrate in riparian corridors, however, this influence may extend beyond the terrestrial environment to impact seasonal water quality dynamics."

The shoe, it would seem, is on the other foot for once. This would all seem to suggest that the health and well-being of human populations along the river are actually being negatively impacted by seasonal concentrations of wildlife: references to annual diarrheal disease outbreaks (which are likewise the subject of ongoing research by Dr Alexander and her team) and the role played by levels of Escherichia coli in the waters of the Chobe, much of which is deposited in the faeces of large herbivores, would seem to bear this out.  

While this is partly true at least, this does not represent the whole of the paper’s findings. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the work takes the form of a series of recommendations around the issue of land-use and development – and, once again, the seasonal availability of water resources is at the heart of the issue.

In order to relieve the pressure on the region’s scarce perennial water sources, Fox and Alexander argue, major efforts should be made in future to make water sources available across a much greater area – including protected areas. Indeed there are signs that this kind of thinking is gaining traction among the country’s conservation-minded leadership, who have already done so much to establish the country’s role as a wildlife refuge, and who seem eager to ensure that this situation is managed sustainably in the future. Here human activities once more take the fore given the lack of natural water sources across most of the country. In practice this will most likely mean the installation and maintenance of a system of boreholes across the arid expanse of the North, and the good news is that this process has already begun with a government-sponsored program of sustainable solar-powered boreholes already yielding dividends across large swathes of the North. 

The potential benefits of this kind of work and this kind of thinking are immense, not least of which are the reduction of seasonal pressures on the delicate ecology of the Chobe River system and all who call it home. It will also open up greater portions of the country to the benefits of ecotourism, minimize human-wildlife conflict in areas where there is currently competition for grazing areas and access to water, and contribute greatly to the health of human and wildlife populations as a whole.

Read the full paper here:

For a synopsis and commentary from the first author himself, check this article in Science Daily:

Monday, September 14, 2015

What is Antibiotic Resistance?

The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines antibiotic resistance as the “resistance of a microorganism to an antimicrobial drug that was originally effective.” According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, antibiotic resistance is “the ability of microbes to resist the effects of drugs – that is, the germs are not killed, and their growth is not stopped,” adding that infections “with resistant organisms are difficult to treat, requiring costly and sometimes toxic alternatives.” Antibiotic resistance, which is specific to bacteria, is part of a broader phenomenon known as antimicrobial resistance. This includes bacteria, parasites, viruses and even fungi.

How is it caused?

Antibiotic resistance is part of a natural process that might best be thought of in terms of selection. In the presence of antibiotics (i.e. when an infected person or animal is put on a course of antibiotics), conditions will inevitably favour those organisms that are able to frustrate, counteract, or inhibit the effective operation of the drug. This can happen in various ways, although two of most common involve either the strengthening or addition of the bacterial protective membrane, or a process known as efflux, whereby the chemicals introduced into the organism are flushed out before they can be effective. Traits such as an additional protective membrane or enhance efflux can occur as part of so-called “erroneous replication” – in effect a process of mutation.

How does it spread?

The most important way in which antibiotic resistance spreads is through the process of replication. All replicates of a resistant bacterium are likely to inherit the trait that is the source of the resistance. This means that in a host environment where antibiotics are present, conditions will favour resistant bacteria and their replicates. Treatment in a situation like this is not only likely to be more expensive, but it will also generally take longer. This in turn means that patients will often be infectious for longer, meaning that there is a greater probability that the infection will spread to others.
Another way in which antibiotic resistance spreads was described by Jerry Wright (chemical biologist at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada) in a recent interview with the Guardian: “Bacteria are very promiscuous and the most shocking thing we’ve realised over the past 60 years is just how rapidly this gene sharing occurs. They often acquire these resistance genes in packages, giving them resistance to multiple antibiotics at the same time, and that’s a major problem in hospitals.” These packages – also known as plasmids – enable bacteria to actually trade these resistance traits among themselves, and thereby to spread them rapidly.

How does it affect us?

Widespread misuse of antibiotics, in healthcare and animal husbandry, is largely responsible for the pandemic proportions of this problem, but it is also a very natural consequence of any antibiotic use at all. Predictions as to the future impact of the global spread of antibiotic resistance are dire, with the WHO itself pointing to the possibility of what it calls “the post-antibiotic era,” where “common infections and minor injuries, which have been treatable for decades, can once again kill.” Some have even suggested that simple surgical procedures might be impossible within the next two decades due to the risk of infection. Antibiotic resistance already causes close to a million deaths annually across the globe, and that number is projected to increase tenfold by the middle of the century.

What can be done?

Understanding the scale of the problem is one of the most serious challenges in the struggle against antimicrobial resistance, with the CDC calling for increased surveillance at the state level. In many parts of the world, no such monitoring programs exist at all, which also means that the potential for under-reporting is vast.

Another potent tool would be the development of new antibiotics (antibiotic development has been in decline since the late eighties), or the resurrection of old ones which might be deployed in novel ways and combinations now that scientists better understand the way they work. There have also been sustained calls for better stewardship by healthcare workers, pharmacists and others to ensure that they prescribe antibiotics more selectively and educate patients about the risks involved in not finishing a course, taking prescriptions meant for others, stockpiling antibiotics for later use, etc…
Work is also needed in terms of detection and diagnostic tools. Monitoring of this problem is still very much in its infancy in terms of coordination, efficiency and cooperation at the international level.

Antibiotic Resistance in the Chobe River System

Dr Alexander and her team have established the presence of antibiotic resistant bacteria among wildlife populations in the Chobe region. As part of their ongoing research on this issue, they are now seeking to establish whether or not these resistant bacteria are to be found in the river itself and, if so, how they got there, how widespread they are and what antibiotics, exactly, they have developed resistance against. This is very much in line with the calls described above to improve global surveillance and monitoring of resistant microorganisms, and might indeed take things a step further by monitoring environmental levels of these dangerous pathogens. One of the interesting things about the mechanisms for spreading antibiotic resistance is the fact that the genetic traits that cause it may also have other consequences for the bacteria. These are thought of in terms of evolutionary costs or benefits - in effect, whether they contribute to increased or decreased fitness, whether they help or hinder the organism in its survivability. As bacteria pass on these traits through replication and by swapping plasmids, they also transfer these costs and benefits. This might indeed prove to be one of the "chinks" in their armour, and might prove useful as part of the increasingly unconventional approaches being taken to combat this looming threat in the scientific world, and gaining a better understanding of the way these processes work is therefore of the utmost importance. 

Useful Links:




Tuesday, September 8, 2015

The Myth of the "Pristine"

Recent debates in fields as diverse as conservation, ecology, atmospheric chemistry, and geology have often touched on issues related to a proposed new geological era called the Anthropocene. First coined by ecologist Eugene F. Stoermer in the 1980s, the idea has since been popularized by Paul Crutzen (atmospheric chemist), and, although it has not yet entered the official nomenclature, it has been steadily gaining currency as a description of the present state of our planet for the last decade or so. The general argument is as follows: man's influence on global natural systems is now so pervasive (from the atmosphere to the nitrogen cycle, mass extinctions, climate change, changes in the distribution of species, etc...) as to constitute a distinct geological epoch. There is no aspect of life on earth, in other words, that is not in some way affected by human activity, no matter how remote or removed it might seem. 

By implication, therefore, there are no longer any truly pristine wilderness areas on planet earth. Every nook and recess has now been conscripted by human modernity, and, resultantly, the natural has become inextricably entangled with the human. Dr Kathleen Alexander's Coupled Natural-Human Systems project takes this situation into account from the first; it is in some sense the underlying premise. The Chobe River system and all surrounding (read dependent) human and wildlife populations are assessed in precisely these terms: as interconnected and inseparable, theoretically and practically – the extent of their interconnectedness itself constituting what might be considered the primary concern of the project as a whole, particularly in areas such as disease transmission and antibiotic resistance.

As recent literature would seem to indicate, this state of affairs requires a reassessment of conservation goals - particularly in fields and activities related to the preservation and restoration of wilderness areas. An article by Kopf, Finlayson and Humphries suggests that the answer might be to abandon ideas of returning such areas to their historical "pristine" states - which are in any case not only difficult to adequately define, but often fail to take into account the manner in which these systems naturally change over time - and instead to focus on what they term "Anthropocene baselines". These are defined as "ecosystems or parts of biodiversity that cannot – or will not – be restored to historical conditions," and would take into account the “reality of the modern world: humans depend on natural resources and, in many cases, biodiversity is depleted or permanently altered - but may still be used sustainably.”

“[T]he traditional focus on the goal of wilderness protection,” as Minteer and Pine put it, “rests on a view of “pristine” nature that is simply no longer viable on a planet hurtling toward nine billion human inhabitants.” So there is no longer such a thing as “pristine” – if ever there was. Both of these essays – and a host of others – are collected as part of a broader project on American Conservation in the Anthropocene published this year as an anthology of letters and essays. Entitled “After Preservation: Saving American Nature in the Age of Humans,” it is available from the University of Chicago Press, and promises to survey an idea that has come to represent the zeitgeist international conservation efforts.

In effect this means taking stock of a “new normal”, and with an abundance of terms like “historical”, “traditional”, “modern” etc… it is perhaps not surprising that history is manifestly a part of these debates. So far, this aspect of the conversation has tended to centre around locating the start of the Anthropocene epoch. Intellectual movements like this one, which seek to radically distinguish themselves from previous currents of thought often find themselves drawn to questions of origins, and the potential for rupture inherent in the very idea of the Anthropocene has lent itself to precisely this kind of intellectual foray.

Less attention has been devoted to the idea of “pristine” wilderness, or the manner in which it is a product of a specific moment in human history. The word pristine itself has undergone a series of shifts in meaning in the past few hundred years. In the original Latin, pristinus, (and also the Middle French pristin) it meant simply “former” – referring to any previous state. In the 16th century, in English, it was endowed with an additional sense of the primitive and undeveloped – coinciding, perhaps, with Britain’s first stirrings towards the outside world. Pristine in the sense in which we understand it today, that is of the unsullied, the unspoilt, the spotless, actually dates from as recently as the late 1890’s, that is at the tail-end of global exploration and European territorial expansion, the height of the British Empire and the rise of the first truly global economy.

These changes in significance chart a rather different epochal progression. When Lady Anne Boleyn used the word in a letter in the year 1534 (“Restored to his pristine fredome”), it referred simply to a previous, original condition, not to something in any way new or untouched, and certainly not primitive or undeveloped. By 1899, when the word appeared in the Westminster Gazette, it carried with it a sense of the unspoilt – in this case, of unspoilt architectural beauty, and also a little of the political upheavals of the time (“This indignant Tory thinks that what would be pristinely beautiful as Dollis Hill would be newly ugly as Gladstone Park”). A pristine wilderness in the 16th century was therefore a very different thing from what it came to mean in the 20th, and the epistemic violence of this shift should not be underestimated. The key change – one best perhaps illustrated by the history of the Masai people – was one from a previous condition, in effect the journey back in time experienced and described by the explorers of antiquity encountering wild landscapes and less technologically sophisticated cultures, to an idea of pristine that completely excluded a permanent human presence. A pristine wilderness today – and strangely enough, from the late 19th century onwards – is a wilderness devoid of permanent human habitation.

In the early 1890’s, Italian forces landed in present-day Eritrea and commenced battle with their Somalian adversaries. They brought with them Indian cattle and in so doing triggered one of the worst epizootics in human history. The rinderpest outbreak of the final years of the 19th century would eventually kill millions of people and even greater numbers of cattle and wildlife. It would eventually reach as far south as the Cape of Good Hope, leaving a vast swathe a death and suffering in its wake. In fact, so devastating were the consequences of this disease for the Masai people that contemporary estimates indicated a two-thirds decrease in overall population.

As a result, the Masai herdsmen and their cattle all but disappeared from the Serengeti plains, leaving subsequent European visitors with the impression the area was just about uninhabited. A 1955 report by the Royal National Parks Department concluded that the Serengeti was “a glimpse into Africa as it was before the white man ever crossed its shores”, a statement which couldn’t be further from the truth, given the fact that the emptiness of the landscape resulted directly of European adventurism on the horn of Africa half a century before. Ignorant of this fact, Tanzania’s colonial administrators set about protecting this status quo with the establishment of several national parks, including the world renowned Serengeti National Park – an area devoid of Masai herdsmen to this day. The conflation of the separate ideas of previous conditions and the absence of humanity is quite clear in this case, and the full violence of the term “pristine” could hardly be better exemplified.

This sad history also illustrates the difficulty inherent in adequately defining the parameters of an historical benchmark. Snapshots are never sufficient in terms of incorporating natural processes of ecological change, and fall even further from the mark in terms of man’s historical impact on the world’s ecosystems. Little wonder, then, that the term “pristine” has fallen out of favour. The full historical impact of the term is perhaps yet to be fully addressed, but its absence from future ecological debates is nonetheless something to be celebrated.

The Chobe Region has something in common with the Masai Mara and the Serengeti in that it has also been inhabited by humans for millennia now. The term “pristine” makes absolutely no sense here – the system has been a coupled natural-human one for a very, very long time – so long that any gesture further back, any attempt to restore a previous condition would be patently absurd. Man’s impact on the region’s ecosystems, though, has changed dramatically, particularly over the course of the last century. Assessing the nature of these changes is imperative in terms of defining the kind of “Anthropocene baseline” described above – and this is about much more than simply counting and finding substitutes for regionally extinct species (of which there are, unfortunately, quite a few).

The Coupled Natural-Human Systems Project will go some way toward defining these interactions and affects. The Chobe River system itself is at the heart of this endeavour of course – as it is at the heart of the system as a whole as well as being a (if not the) major interface between the human and the natural in this part of the world. The spread of antibiotic resistance within this system and a broad analysis of water quality variations over time are both a part of this process. Both of these sets of data will contribute towards a fuller understanding of what the Chobe’s Anthropocene benchmark should actually look like for the simple reason that they both shed more light on the effects of man’s actions on the environment around him – most crucially in terms of what man is putting into it, unintentionally or not. The end of the “pristine” need not herald the end of the wild, and nor does it mean the abandonment of sustainably managed ecosystems or the formulation of forward-thinking environmental policy. This is the philosophy of Virginia Tech’s Alexander Lab.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Water Sampling and the health of the Chobe River System:

The Chobe River system is as complex and diverse as it is beautiful, and understanding the manner in which adjacent human populations affect this crucial regional artery is of the utmost importance for conservation, community health and sustainability. As part of Dr Kathleen Alexander's ongoing Coupled Human-Natural Systems project (conducted through a partnership between CARACAL and Virginia Tech and funded by the NSF), the Chobe River is regularly sampled by her team. These are some images captured during this week's sampling, during which the team collected data at 28 points along the river. 

A number of issues are at play here. Perhaps most crucial is the role played by antibiotic resistance. Dr Alexander recently published a paper on this issue (we posted a link to it here), and this has since been the subject of a number of articles (most recently on SciDev.Net and AChangingWorld ). The current water quality analysis follows on from the previous study by tracking antibiotic resistance in E-coli present in the river system, and samples are taken at each of the sample sites specifically to test for the presence of resistant colonies.

Of course this cannot be assessed in isolation - we also need to understand the manner in which the river flows and a whole host of other variables which might affect the presence and abundance of these bacteria in the water-column, including the presence of sediments, river-traffic, effluent drainage points, seasonal variation in water-levels, annual flood-surges, variations in temperature, and many more. 

In effect, then, this study is about much more than just antibiotic resistance. This, certainly, is one of the most important research outcomes, but this study also aims to measure the overall health of the Chobe River System and -by extension - all the people and ecosystems dependent upon it. 

Friday, July 31, 2015

National Science Foundation Article on Water Quality and Health:

Dr Kathleen Alexander's Coupled Natural Human Systems research program (conducted through a partnership between CARACAL and Virginia Tech, and funded by the National Science Foundation) features this week on the NSF's home page! The NSF is an independent US federal agency "created by Congress in 1950 to promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare..." It is perhaps the most prestigious research organisation in the world, and has an annual operating budget of $7.3Bn! Click on the link below to read the NSF's full article on Dr Alexander's program, which is working on the interconnectedness of human and natural systems and the manner in which wildlife species provide clues as to the spread of antibiotic resistance in Africa and around the world:

Monday, February 23, 2015

Help Ethel the aardvark! | Kathleen Alexander's Fundraiser on CrowdRise

Help Ethel the aardvark! |  Fundraiser on CrowdRise


In January 2015, Ethel, the aardvark, was attacked by domestic dogs in the Chobe Enclave, Botswana. The community and the Department of Wildlife and National Parks rescued Ethel and brought her to CARACAL (our NGO in Botswana) for care. Unfortunately Ethel had suffered significant injuries from the attack and was transported down to Maun to undergo surgery for a broken leg. After a month of recovering from surgery she has returned to us here at CARACAL, however, she is still in poor health. While we can provide expert veterinary care for Ethel at CARACAL, we do not have the funds that are required for her treatment, care and future life with us. Ethel's veterinary bills from her surgery were expensive and the costs of her ongoing care and treatment are escalating. When Ethel recovers she will require a custom built nocturnal enclosure at CARACAL where she will become an important ambassador for her species.

We are hoping to raise $10,000 to cover these costs, but the more funds we can raise, the better we can build Ethel’s new home. With a larger enclosure we can accommodate other rescued nocturnal animals (such as the two bush babies living with us) and create a homely environment for Ethel and her friends.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Project identifies widespread occurrence of leptospirosis in wildlife in Botswana - causing a disease of global importance

Leptospirosis is an enormous public health threat that affects predominately the poor. CARACAL and Virginia Tech are working hard to understand this problem. Dr. Alexander has been leading a program of study on this important disease and together with her post doctoral student, Dr. Sarah Jobbins, they have made important discoveries. Not only have they identified the presence of this pathogen in Botswana, but the widespread occurrence of infection among wildlife. Many questions remain - does this pathogen affect any other species? How does leptospirosis move across the landscape? Although leptospirosis has not been reported in Botswana in humans - does this disease impact people and we just miss it because there are so many other disease that present with fever? We are working hard to find out!

Friday, October 3, 2014

Our work in Northern Botswana is focused on understanding the interaction between the environment, humans, and animals including wildlife and the implications this has to infectious disease transmission dynamics. Our previous work on diarrheal disease identified critical relationships between the environment and human and animal health.

We have launched a new and exciting component of our research. With community project partners, we are looking at how sanitation can influence diarrheal disease. In particular, how fly densities might be influenced by environmental drivers and how, in turn, flies might influence human health.

The Conservation, Food, and Health Foundation ( is providing critical support to this important work.

Joseph Berger, (CC)

Our Wild World | VoiceAmerica™

Our Wild World | VoiceAmerica™

Dr. Alexander interviews with VoiceAmerica to discuss the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.