Novel epidemiology research gets underway with the Karoo Predator Project

Dr Eleonore Hellard checking the quality of the blood smears

As the Karoo Predator Project continues to go from strength to strength, the Project has expanded to include health, disease ecology and epidemiology of predators as a research focus. This work, conducted by project collaborator and MSc student, Storme Viljoen, looks at the prevalence and intensity of various pathogens and parasites which are likely to infect black-backed jackals and caracals, particularly those occupying farmlands and coming into contact with livestock.

Storme checking for damage and wear on the nails of an adult femle rooikat

Marine, Storme and the team have spent many a day performing intensive necropsies on problem animals, culled during predator control operations, the result of which is a sizable number of samples – much larger than is typical of most carnivore studies. Back at the University of Cape Town, these samples are slowly being analysed using numerous techniques, including high-resolution light microscopy, faecal egg counts, and diagnostic polymerase chain reaction to look for viral and bacterial infections. In addition, this project will explore genetic characteristics of the predator populations in an attempt to gain insight into relevant questions about population dynamics.

Examining the teeth of a rooikat. Gum disease and tartar build up on teeth is often used as an indicator of certain viral diseases in cats, such as Feline Immunodeficiency virus (FIV)

We have been very lucky to have the support of the Karoo farmers, many of whom have shown incredible enthusiasm for the research and who have provided valuable insight and observations about predators living at the farmland interface. Often, when working in human-wildlife conflict situations, this is not at all the case. So, the team at the KPP want to say a huge THANK YOU to all the professional hunters and farmers who took the time to chat with us, give advice, share stories and even get their hands dirty with the fieldwork! In particular, Michael and Lizelle Murray of Kareedam, near Rietbron, deserve special mention for hosting the team and allowing us to set up our rather large field lab, so that we could carry out our research rigourously and safely. This family truly went above and beyond to make us feel welcome and help us run our project efficiently!

Farmers getting involved! This is Lourens De Wet preparing a muscle biopsy sample from an adult black-backed jackal.

We spent our evening labeling sample types, in preparation of the next day ‘s necropsies. But somehow, we keep smiling!

As we get going with sample processing, we anticipate exciting times ahead! Already our research has shown while the vast majority of predators appear healthy, some show signs of liver disease and we have only just found signs of a heavy blood parasite load in some of the caracals. What this means for the populations and their ecological interactions, will become clear as we progress. Updates to follow as exciting new insights are gained!!

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