On April 25th, Lincoln Park Zoo researchers vaccinated their one millionth dog in a now decade-long conservation project designed to save endangered carnivores in Serengeti National Park by eliminating rabies.
In 2003, the Serengeti Health Initiative team began traveling to small towns and remote villages in northern Tanzania administering rabies and distemper vaccines to local domestic dogs in an effort to shield the park’s many wild animals from the killer diseases. The zoo team worked collaboratively with MSD Animal Health, who generously donated the vaccines free of charge.
“The populations of already-endangered carnivores like lions and African wild dogs were declining massively as native species increasingly contracted rabies from local domestic dogs,” said Lincoln Park Zoo Vice President of Conservation Steve Thompson. “By vaccinating those dogs, we are saving so many wild animals throughout the region.”
Though vaccinating one million domestic dogs is an achievement in itself, the logistical issues facing the project make it a greater accomplishment still.
“It is an incredibly tiring and fairly dirty job,” said Felix Lankester, Director of Tanzania Programs for Lincoln Park Zoo. “To access all the dogs in the area, my team literally had to go off the beaten path – and then keep going for a few more miles.”
Hugely popular with locals, the project has many people willing to travel long distances to ensure their dogs are protected from the viruses that are also fatal for humans, particularly young children and the elderly.
Thanks to the work of Lankester and his team, approximately 150 human lives have been saved from rabies infections per year. Additionally, African wild dogs have returned to the ecosystem after being absent some 20 years, the lion population has rebounded, and populations of other vulnerable native species have been given a much-needed chance to recover.
“This is rare win-win situation for both wildlife and people,” said Lankester. “Rabies in Serengeti wildlife has been eliminated, rabies in domestic animals has been eliminated, and the number of rabies cases in humans has dropped to zero.”