The Herding for Health Project that was initiated by the Faculty of Veterinary Science at the University of Pretoria (UP) is a One Health, pro-poor, rural development project aimed at establishing integrated management of livestock and improving rural livelihoods in areas at the wildlife-livestock interface.

The Kruger to Canyon Biosphere Reserve (K2C), located on the western border of the Kruger National Park (KNP), is world-famous for its abundance of wildlife and natural beauty. The reserve is situated in the KNP’s buffer zone where, through collaborative partnerships, it drives the integrated land use strategy of SANParks to enable responsible, community-based use of natural resources and wildlife management that is aligned to the KNP’s socioeconomic development plans.

Blessings and burdens

In this natural wonderland however, pastoralist communities bear the burden of living so close to wildlife. Cattle farmers routinely suffer loss of livestock to predation from both small and large predators that cross the park fence boundary. Their animals are also at higher risk of contracting multi-host pathogens and infectious trans-boundary diseases, such as foot-and-mouth disease (FMD), which is spread from buffalo to cattle. Although this viral disease does not pose a risk to food safety or public health, it can spread quickly among cloven-hoofed livestock, and is therefore difficult to control. Areas where FMD is endemic in wildlife, or the risk of spread to livestock is high, are demarcated as ‘FMD infected/protection zones’, and livestock movement, as well as the transport of most meat products from cattle, is restricted within and between these areas.

Apart from the imposed movement control of all susceptible animals, FMD is further controlled by restricting contact between buffalo and livestock. This is achieved by keeping wildlife in game-proof, fenced areas within protected areas such as the Greater KNP. Unfortunately, this restricted movement of cattle and most beef products negatively impacts market access for local cattle farmers and thus their ability to make money from their cattle. The inability of farmers living in the FMD protection zone of the K2C to sell their cattle or move them from the area also results in rangeland degradation, as well as significant loss of livestock during periods of drought.

Managing the challenges

The Herding for Health project aims to respond to these and other pressing challenges, and to alleviate poverty among the local communities. Over the last five years, the University has engaged a range of partners who now collaborate under the banner of Herding for Health.

Herd monitors (with knowledge of primary animal health) and eco rangers (herders with training in environmental and livestock management), for example, work with scientists, local government departments such as veterinary services, and local communities to improve livestock production while restoring degrading rangelands. In addition to the rangeland restoration, the Herding for Health partners also support local farming cooperatives to take advantage of economic opportunities and improve their livelihoods through activities linked to sustainable red meat production, such as game meat harvesting, grazing / grass harvesting rights, seed harvesting for rangeland improvement and trade in livestock and wildlife-derived products.

The Mnisi area (Bushbuckridge Municipality, Mpumalanga), which has a long history of working with the Faculty of Veterinary Science at UP and its conservation and development partners, was selected to pilot a project that aims to provide opportunities for livestock sales to farmers in an FMD protection zone. The communities living in this area are surrounded by wildlife areas on three sides of their grazing lands, which puts them at especially high risk. The pilot project, which includes four villages and four communal dip tanks (to avoid cattle contracting FMD or other diseases), 7 500 hectares of rangeland, 4 000 cattle, and 330 cattle owners, will also introduce a new design of mobile abattoir technology that will facilitate the safe and low-impact supply of red meat from livestock in an FMD-infected area.

Pilot project worth the work

Dr Jacques van Rooyen, from the faculty’s Hans Hoheisen Wildlife Research Platform (HHWRP), says that his team has been working around the clock to try and get all the necessary approvals and costing in place for this new addition to the project. ”It is becoming a benchmark project in terms of how science, development, policy, implementation and business need to come together to achieve what science proposes could work. It has been very challenging to combine all these various facets, but we believe it will be worth it,” he says.

The Mpumalanga Department of Agriculture, Rural Development, Land and Environmental Affairs recently approved the pilot phase of the mobile abattoir technology for 30 cattle. The team will keep detailed records of the process and adhere to strict control measures.

The pilot area is within reach of the Skukuza abattoir, the only designated abattoir in the FMD-infected zone of South Africa from where meat can be transported outside of the control area should all veterinary requirements be met. The mobile abattoir technology, together with the successful integration of commodity-based trade standards for the trade of beef from FMD-infected areas, will enable the sale of red meat products outside the controlled areas and provide a vital cash injection for local households that rely on livestock farming for their subsistence.

Far reaching effects

The Herding for Health pilot project is led by the HHWRP and supported by the Peace Parks Foundation and the Hans Hoheisen Charitable Trust. Implementation of the project is managed in collaboration with Conservation South Africa, whose aim is to promote sustainable agricultural practices through the development of value chains that will in turn promote rangeland and biodiversity stewardship. The Peace Parks Foundation, one of the major contributors to this project, has also pledged major support for the concept and intends to grow it throughout southern Africa. They have already identified possible sites in Mozambique and Zambia for its expansion. All aspects of the Herding for Health programme also require close collaboration with various government departments, such as the Mpumalanga Veterinary Services and the Department of Rural Affairs and Land Reform. These departments will form part of the development team, especially where new policy and implementation models are being tested.

Visit Research Matters to find out about other One Health-related projects being pursued by researchers in the Faculty of Veterinary Science at UP, and see how they are changing things for the better at the interface of human, animal and environmental health. –University of Pretoria

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