As global concern around the emergence of zoonotic diseases rises following Covid-19, the links between animal health, human health and environmental health are increasingly recognized. At the interface of public health, livestock health and wildlife conservation in South Africa, reserve managers and veterinarians are working to understand and control potentially devastating diseases. Understanding the ecology of wildlife and their roles as hosts and reservoirs of disease is crucial for containing future epidemics. Our knowledge of the prevalence and transmission of wildlife diseases has grown substantially over the last decade, with new technology emerging for diagnosing and tracking diseases.
This online disease ecology practicum emphasises the importance of a holistic approach when managing disease risks and outbreaks. It is run in partnership with local veterinarians and scientists and is designed to provide upper level undergraduate and graduate students with real-life examples of the challenges involved in managing animal health in rural communities that border protected areas. We will be based in Kruger National Park in South Africa, and will grapple with diverse topics related to disease ecology, ranging from clinical and molecular diagnostics, to microscopy, game capture, types of parasites and pathogens and their vectors, governance and legislation, livestock management and ecosystem health. We aim to provide ecological, socio-economic and veterinary context for studying disease ecology in South Africa, while concurrently teaching clinical, analytical and field skills.
This practicum aims to give aspiring wildlife ecologists, veterinarians and reserve managers experience in engaging in disease research at the interface of wildlife, human and livestock health. Specifically, it seeks to familiarize participants with the fundamentals of disease ecology and teaches relevant field-skills and diagnostic tools using real-life examples from South Africa. The course will begin with a brief review of the fundamentals of biodiversity conservation, the drivers of change in natural ecosystems in southern Africa, and why a holistic framework for understanding disease dynamics is important. To gain practical experience students will assist in analysing blood and parasite samples and camera trap images collected from across a land use gradient. Participants will then analyse the data and produce a research paper. Formal contact time will consist of three Zoom sessions (60 – 90 minutes) per week, with time allocated for individual or group feedback on quizzes and draft research reports. Students will work independently on sample evaluation, data analysis and report writing.
- Session 1: Introduction to staff and guest lecturers; Biodiversity and Conservation in South Africa. Abiotic template of Kruger National Park.
- Session 2: Wildlife health/human health/ONE-health (holistic approach to disease ecology in a developing country); History of disease ecology in KNP (Malaria, Rinderpest, Bovine TB, Foot and Mouth Disease)
- Session 3: Disease Ecology; Types of wildlife disease – endemic / exotic (more detail, diversity of pathogens, parasites, vectors)
Activities – Two academic readings and a short online quiz on course content.
- Session 1: Diagnostic techniques and clinical signs in wildlife; principles of disease transmission, Zoonoses of importance to southern African wildlife, economic importance of diseases
- Session 2: Fieldwork begins – Introduction to field methods in disease ecology; Animal behaviour and how this influences disease, movement ecology; environmental/habitat drivers
- Session 3: Intro to research project(s); Diagnostics – microscopes and DNA
Activities – Two academic readings and a short online quiz on course content.
Week 3 (01/11-15)
- Session 1: Data entry and exploration in Ms Excel; importing spatial data from GPS; GIS introductory session
- Session 2: Biostatistics in R; Scientific writing; literature searching and referencing/citing literature
- Session 3: Governance, policy and socio-economic impacts – e.g. FMD, Covid19; Current priorities and future directions of disease ecology
Activities – Independent research: data analysis and write-up
- Session 1: Analyses and write-up
- Session 2: Analyses and write-up
- Session 3: Student presentations (15 min PowerPoint presentation via Zoom)
Activities – Independent research: data analysis and write-up
- Understand the importance of environmental health and conservation in managing diseases in protected areas
- Understand how to capture and sample a variety of wild and domestic vertebrates (including sampling equipment, sample storage and downstream laboratory applications / tests)
- Understand the important role of animal behavior in understanding and managing wildlife diseases
- Insight into the challenges of managing diseases common to wildlife and livestock at the interface between protected and farming areas
- Familiarity with online genomic databases and their applications in disease ecology and diagnostics
- Scientific writing skills and biostatistical analysis
Basic familiarity with disease ecology and conservation biology is recommended. No prior veterinary training is required. A background in biological sciences will be beneficial for completing academic readings and understanding vocabulary during class, however, this is not essential. A good internet connection will be required to attend online lectures and download instructional videos and other course content.
Further details of how to prepare for the course will be sent directly to enrolled participants.
We accept students on a rolling basis, so please note that the program may fill before the application deadline.
Additional scholarships will be available for students with demonstrated financial need. If you are interested in being considered for a partial scholarship, please contact us once you submit your application, for instructions on how to apply for an OTS Scholarship.
Please note seats are limited.
Laurence Mohr Kruger
Ph.D. – Botany, University of Cape Town
Dr. Kruger is the Director of Curriculum for OTS and is based in Skukuza, Kruger National Park. His primary interests lie in functional ecology and how species response to disturbance. His interests lie specifically on the demography of woody plants in a variety of South Africa biomes, the bottlenecks imposed in each system, and which traits are critical in overcoming them. During his Ph.D., Dr. Kruger focused on the importance of re-sprouting in South African coastal forests, fynbos, and savannas. His current work is focused on the impact that elephants and fire have on savannas and how resilient plants and communities might be in response to this disturbance. Allied to this is work on the impact of the loss of vegetation complexity on resident faunal communities. A large portion of Dr. Kruger’s private consulting work has been in the field of conservation, in particular conservation planning. This work has included surveys of natural habitats (biodiversity surveys), identifying the threats (development, habitat transformation, alien vegetation/faunal invasives), and the setting of conservation targets. This work has provided him with the opportunity to become more actively involved in conservation while still engaging on a theoretical level.
Born into a family of biologists and humanitarians, Dr. Kruger has followed his passion for both by running field based, experiential learning programs in and around South Africa. Given the challenges facing education institutions (lack of resources, limited access to the field) and the barriers to education many students face, he sees OTS’ goal to be the dismantling of these obstacles.
In delivering life-changing, academically rigorous field courses, Dr. Kruger aims for OTS programs to provide experiences that allow for growth in aspirations for students and academics alike. He feels strongly that we need to rethink our role in society and return our focus to humanity, rather than self-actualization, and how we could contribute to others. Aside from focusing on quality, integrity, and creativity, Dr. Kruger has found that the single most important ingredient in education is to have fun.
Ph.D. – University of Cape Town
Resident Lecturer, Skukuza, Kruger National Park. Dr. Nupen’s professional interests span Conservation Biology and Molecular Ecology, with a strong emphasis on the various ways genetic techniques can be used to help solve conservation problems. Teaching on OTS allows her to combine her passion for science-based conservation with fieldwork and knowledge-sharing. Dr. Nupen has worked on research projects investigating various aspects of marine ecology, mammalian diversity, avian biology, frog and reptile population dynamics, and the floral and faunal rehabilitation of disturbed areas. Her current work focuses on the use of automated sensors to monitor wildlife, the science behind conservation breeding, monitoring wildlife diseases in birds and mammals, and investigating conservation genomics and phylogeography. Dr. Nupen’s passion is conducting research that contributes to conservation efforts and protecting the environment. At OTS she can feed this passion by participating in a wide range of research projects while training future conservation leaders. She finds it rewarding to help students build an authentic appreciation of the complexity of African ecosystems and their conservation.
Ph.D. – University of Pretoria
Disease Ecologist; Specialist in behaviour and disease in Indigenous species, Kruger National Park: She has been involved with environmental research, conservation, and project management since 2003. Her primary interests encompass the incorporation of behavioural research into understanding evolutionary drivers of disease transmission, infection mechanisms and disease control efforts. A history researching endangered carnivores and mega-herbivores has emphasised the need for continued research and monitoring of key species, systems and natural processes on this ever-changing planet for Dr. Forssman. Her current research includes aspects such as the role of disease, behaviour and immunity in species persistence and the efficacy of using behavioural cues to target vaccination programmes in rural farming communities bordering conservation areas. Dr. Forssman appreciates the need to train and inspire early career scientists, biologists and veterinarians to keep up with changing management and conservation needs as the challenges facing our entire planet evolve. The continued research and monitoring of key species, systems and natural processes in the face of climate change are vital if we are to better understand ecological and evolutionary mechanisms that drive fecundity, fatality and other biological processes.
Tino Pori, MSc,
Tino recently completed his MSc in Disease Ecology at the University of the Witwatersrand. He has interests in the interactions between animals and infections in the context of their environment and evolution particularly at human wildlife interfaces. His ultimate goal is to make efforts to understand the infection, transmission, and spread of diseases so as to monitor the virulence of organisms that threaten animal health. Tino also has a passion for human capital development. In this regard, he has worked with the Nsasani Trust on several courses. During this time, he is dedicated to inspire creative thinking and the development of new skills to students. In his spare time, Tino enjoys hiking, cycling, and playing soccer.
Dr. Danny Govender,
SANParks, General Manager, Scientific Services, Kruger National Park: She joined SANParks as a clinical veterinarian in 2005 in the Veterinary Wildlife Services Department where her primary role was game capture for wildlife sales, translocations between parks, and research-related capture. Being based in a large conservation area in Africa, which is nested within a peace park between South Africa, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and the Greater-Limpopo Transfrontier Park, with a rich parasite and host diversity and multiple stakeholders with varied needs, incited an excitement to strengthen our local science base. In 2008, Dr. Govender transferred to the Scientific Services Department and took up the position as Disease Ecologist, where she coordinated and conducted research into animal and human diseases. She is especially interested in understanding freshwater threats, both from disease and pollution, in order to minimize our impact on our natural world and find innovative ways in which we can use our aquatic resources responsibly.
PhD Candidate – University of Florida
Kimberly is a PhD candidate in the Department of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation at the University of Florida. Her research interests primarily integrate the fields of landscape and molecular ecology to better understand the role of biodiversity and environments on infectious disease dynamics. For her doctoral research, she is currently studying how land use and defaunation influences arthropod vectors and vector-borne diseases in southern Africa. Habitat modification and loss of biodiversity play a key role in infectious disease risk and alter the ability of ecosystems to regulate prevalence of important human, livestock and wildlife diseases. Ticks are the most important vector of livestock disease and rank second only to mosquitoes as vectors of human infectious disease globally. In Eswatini, she studies how habitat composition and savanna fragmentation drive differences in tick communities and alter the risk of disease for livestock and dogs. In South Africa, she is utilizing long-term large mammal exclosures in Kruger National Park to better understand the context and mechanisms of how large wildlife loss has cascading impacts on tick populations. Kimberly is also passionate about training developing scientists and translating research into conservation actions.