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Marwell Research Centre Disease Laboratory

August 14, 2013

One of the hidden threats to the survival of small populations of endangered species, particularly in remote areas like northern Kenya, is infectious disease. Relatively little is known about diseases affecting wild equids such as the Grevy’s zebra, for example.  In 2006 an anthrax outbreak killed over 100 Grevy’s zebra- about 5% of the remaining population - in Samburu. Marwell in partnership with Lewa and the Grevy’s Zebra Technical Committee assisted with the inoculation of over 600 Grevy’s in an attempt to cordon off the diseased area and halt its spread. Even so, there was a delay in diagnosing the problem as samples collected in the field had to be transported hundreds of kilometres south to Nairobi for analysis and diagnosis in the laboratories of the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS).

A delay of several days can mean the difference between a catastrophic loss and a manageable outcome. In 2006 we were very fortunate and the population has not experienced any long term damage. There are many factors that can impede a rapid and successful response. Something as simple as having a reliable cold chain in place, the ability to keep samples at low temperatures from their collection point to the point of analysis, or having an adequately equipped field based sampling team available. Marwell has begun to change the odds in this equation. Together with partners in the Grevy’s Zebra Technical Committee, we have devised an early detection strategy, put a disease response committee in place and defined protocols for the detection, treatment and prevention of the most common diseases wild Grevy’s might encounter. 

An important part of this plan has been the development of afield laboratory and team who are available on a full time basis to react to reports of diseased, injured or deceased animals. The laboratory is based at our research camp on Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, where Lewa supports a full time KWS veterinarian and mobile technical team. Equipped with a wet bench,-30˚C freezer, standard fridge, centrifuge, microscope and well supplied with materials for the preparation of slides and preservation of samples. Currently all samples collected by the mobile vet team are processed in the Marwell lab and stored for onward transmission to Nairobi if necessary. 

Already in 2012 and 2013 several MSc. and PhD students have begun investigating parasite loads and tick-borne diseases in Grevy’s zebra using the laboratory. The laboratory’s development is ongoing and we are still adding much needed equipment to the facility. We hope to have a full time technician stationed at the lab to assist with sample processing, storage and record keeping.

“Without this laboratory this study would not be possible.”

– Sara Heisel, Princeton University graduate student commenting on the value of the new lab for investigating parasite loads and diseases threatening Grevy’s zebra in northern Kenya.

Author: Zeke Davidson – zeked@marwell.org.uk