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Science Snapshot: Field Trip to Kenya

Kenya is a hotspot for charismatic elephants, rhinos and lions, but when Global Health Program (GHP) scientist Lindsey Shields goes on safari, she searches for the animals that draw blood rather than tourists — ticks. Recently, she traveled to the Mpala Research Centre on a joint project with GHP research associate Dr. Michael von Fricken and George Mason University students as part of their emerging infectious disease course. The field trip introduced students to conservation science in action; below are snapshots from their trip.

A sunset over a forested area in Kenya

The way people interact with each other, animals and the environment is a key component of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute’s Global Health Program. We are all connected; in order for one to be healthy, all must be healthy.

The Mpala Research Centre in Laikipia County, Kenya, is a hub for wildlife conservation and health, as well as ecosystem research. The Smithsonian has a fantastic partnership with Mpala. The opportunity to study wildlife in their native habitat provides us with invaluable data that can help us understand the threats they face.

A group of George Mason University students pose in front of a Mount Kenya National Park World Heritage Area building

Welcome to the world of wildlife conservation! From July 31 through Aug. 13, we hosted a group of 19 students from George Mason University for a two-week-long program. Lessons were taught in the classroom, as well as out in the field.

In one classroom lesson, we conducted an outbreak simulation where we assigned students to different roles: ministry of health, ministry of agriculture and ministry of environment. We posed questions and provided them with limited information, similar to a real-world outbreak scenario.

A group of students pose for a photo holding signs that read "Zombie," "Survivor," "Mastermind" and "GMUInKenya" as part of a disease outbreak simulation game

In this photo, the students are acting out a rather fantastical simulation involving zombies. It was a hypothetical scenario in which a disease was affecting humans, wildlife, domestic pets and livestock, and the ministries had to work together to address issues that arise from emerging infectious diseases.

Part of our lessons in the field encompassed a method for collecting ticks known as a “tick drag.” Students dragged a weighted white sheet of fabric over shrubs and grasses. Every 15 meters, they would stop and check the sheet and collect ticks that latched on to the front or back.

They performed a transect, or fifty 15-meter-long drags. Because we had five or six teams going at once, we were able to cover a lot of ground and collected more than 1,500 ticks!

A group of three researchers hold a net and examine it for insects during a field project in Kenya

We found a number of different species of ticks and taught students how to identify the species, process them in the lab and store them for later testing. We believe there are a number of tick-borne diseases that could be of concern for both human and animal health, but we do not yet have an understanding of what is circulating.

The purpose of this trip—in addition to being a significant learning experience for the students—was to create a collection of ticks that will enable us to get a baseline understanding of the diseases these arachnids carry. We now have a treasure trove of specimens to research. 

A researcher with Mpala in Kenya holds a tortoise and points out where ticks might attach to its legs

One of the scientists at Mpala Research Centre is studying tortoises. Using GPS trackers, he is collecting data on their movement to monitor what they eat and how they interact with their environment.

Interestingly, tortoises often get ticks on their legs, where the skin is thinnest and ticks can latch on for a blood meal. 

Three researchers pose in front of a small river in Kenya where mosquitoes are common

In addition to ticks, we also collected mosquitos using a light trap. It resembles a lantern in look and function, in that we hang them on trees and the bugs are attracted to the light. When they get close, a fan sucks the insects down into a net where they cannot escape. We set the traps out at night and collected them the following morning.

Some caught quite a lot of mosquitos — as well as moths and flies — and some did not catch much of anything. Mosquitos proliferate near standing water, so the closer we were to the river, the more mosquitos we caught.

A giraffe walking in tall grasses near a tree in Kenya

One of the most memorable experiences for the students took place at the hippo pool. We were observing them from a fair distance when out of the woods stepped this beautiful young male giraffe. He paused for a moment to look at our group, then took off running. The students were all very excited to see a giraffe up-close!

Two scientists wearing protective suits and face masks stand near a camel in Kenya

This program is an amazing way to reach students before they finish their undergraduate studies and to introduce them to careers that they may not otherwise consider. Bringing students to Kenya and giving them hands-on learning opportunities helps them understand the interface between humans, wildlife and livestock, and how this can lead to the emergence of new infectious diseases. I hope that this experience will also give them insight into how to prevent these diseases from spreading.

This program makes me optimistic about the future of conservation. By sharing knowledge with young people who are going to be working in the public health field to think about the importance of wildlife and the environment, we will see successful interventions in the future.

This story was featured in the October 2018 issue of National Zoo News. This program is made possible through the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute’s Global Health Program, Mpala Research Centre, Dr. Michael von Fricken (faculty at GMU) and the George Mason University Global Discovery Grant.