31 March 2022

ELEPHANT aims to Empower universities’ Learning and rEsearch caPacities in the one Health Approach for the maNagement of animals at the interface between humans, livestock, wildlife and environment in SouTh Africa. 

UMP is one of six South African Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) participating in the ELEPHANT Consortium. Other partners are University of Pretoria (UP), University of Venda (UVEN), University of Fort Hare (UFH), University of Limpopo (UL), Southern African Wildlife College (SAWC) and two European Universities: Utrecht University (UU) and University of Bologna (UNIBO).

On 21 – 25 March, UMP hosted a five-day ELEPHANT meeting at the Tfokomala Hotel and Conference Centre – together with the Steering Committee (UU, UNIBO and UP) and the Board of Representatives (UMP, UNIVEN, UL, UFH, SAWC, UP, UNIBO, and UU).

Progress of the ELEPHANT project was discussed, and further development and delivery of OneHealth-related training in South Africa, the Netherlands and Italy was planned.

The training targeting staff and Post Graduate students, focuses on the principles of OneHealth, an integrated approach of human, animal and environmental health and welfare issues, sample collection and disease surveillance methods, hazard identification, and biosecurity and welfare assessments.

Finally, participants discussed the establishment of community participative post-graduate student research projects, strategies for enhancing involvement of, and effective communication with local communities and authorities, as well as dissemination of results to these communities and beyond.

University of Mpumalanga Research Projects

UMP ELEPHANT Project Leader, Dr Liaan Minnie, and co-investigator Dr Kath Forssman, both from the School of Biology and Environmental Sciences, are developing Masters and Honours student research projects, which will involve working with the community of Welverdiend, Acornhoek bordering the Kruger National Park (KNP).

According to Dr Minnie, “a pilot survey, forming part of the ELEPHANT project, was completed in November 2021 and the Welverdiend community indicated that they have issues with wildlife from KNP moving onto their communal grazing areas and disease spread due to contact with their cattle.

“To address this issue, we are going to place camera traps in the communal grazing areas and ask the local community  to monitor the camera traps, thus increasing community participation in research. We will use these camera traps to determine the abundance, activity patterns and habitat selection of both livestock and wildlife,” he continues.

“Based on this data we will develop a model of contact rates between livestock and wildlife, aimed at predicting the chances of disease-spread between wildlife and livestock.”

Dr Minnie further says that during the pilot survey, the community also expressed concerns over carnivores killing livestock. Camera traps will again be used to look at the abundance, activity patterns and habitat selection of carnivores.

“The information may be useful in adapting livestock management practices within communal grazing areas. The third project in this community is a socio-economic survey of the farmers, which is based on a questionnaire that is being developed as part of the ELEPHANT project,” he says.

Working with communities

The ELEPHANT Project aims to boost innovative research capacities at SA Institutions by facilitating strong connections between partners, local communities and authorities, as well as EU support for equipment purchase. Thus will contribute to poverty relief through effective science-based health and welfare management at the interface between humans, domestic animals, wildlife and environment.

ELEPHANT Chairperson Professor Victor PMG Rutten, who coordinates the Erasmus+ project from Utrecht, Netherlands, chaired the meeting held at UMP.

He said that although the project had launched early 2020, it has suffered a year’s delay due to Covid-19. Fortunately, now, participating institutions and communities are back on track.

“All partners are working very hard and are ready to deliver their contributions. We feel ready to empower staff and postgraduate students.”

Prof Rutten also mentions that staff and postgraduate students, in consultation with communities come forward and contribute to the project. The idea is to train people, especially young stars, to deal with complex animal, environmental and human issues, adopting OneHealth approaches.

“We encourage students to stay on and work with us on OneHealth projects. Most students receive their degrees and leave but some continue as staff at our institutions and even though they might be working somewhere else, they will be equipped with a “OneHealth” attitude.”

The objectives of ELEPHANT addresses several of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals and align with the European Consensus on Development that integrates the economic, social and environmental dimensions of sustainable development for poverty reduction.

UMPParticipants at the ELEPHANT meeting held at UMP.

Solving complex problems

Several evaluations of OneHealth initiatives have indicated that solving complex problems regarding the health and welfare of humans, animals and environment necessitates an adoption of a systematic approach with no domination of one discipline over the others.

ELEPHANT will thus adopt interdisciplinary by bringing together researchers with different skills, expertise and backgrounds as well as a transdisciplinary approach that will overcome the boundaries between academia and society to enable inputs and scoping across scientific and non-scientific stakeholders.

The project aims to adopt a disease risk assessment methodology to enhance capacities in hazard identification (potential source of harm or adverse health effects). Hazards include emerging, endemic, and zoonotic diseases as well as non-infectious threats that may affect the health and/or the welfare of humans and animals, food security and the ecosystem, as well as the consequence for local communities.

This will be mainly done with researchers and post-graduate students. ELEPHANT will address one of the main priorities identified in the South African Veterinary Strategy (2016-2026) of the Department of Agriculture Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) that underlined the importance of participatory health and welfare policies and evidence-based interventions.

The above objectives will ultimately address several of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals and align with the European Consensus on Development that integrates the economic, social and environmental dimensions of sustainable development for poverty reduction.

@ Story by Lisa Thabethe. Pictures ChrisplPhoto.