Gaining real-time information on wildlife health protects animals and people

  • Dr. Margaret Driciru, senior warden and wildlife veterinarian at Uganda’s Queen Elizabeth National Park, describes her work and use of technology
  • Driciru’s team uses a real-time mobile-phone data collection app, Magpi, which helps them identify and respond quickly to wildlife health issues, including possible disease outbreaks that could impact both humans and wildlife
  • Successful deployment on widely available technology (mobile phones) has encouraged the expansion of the program to the rest of the Ugandan national parks

Fast response is critical to preventing the spread of disease, especially in remote places with few potential responders and challenging conditions. Dr. Margaret Driciru, a senior warden and long-time wildlife veterinarian at Queen Elizabeth National Park (QENP) in Uganda, understands this as well as anyone and has consistently promoted the use of practical technologies for her work to save wildlife.

Dr. Driciru spoke with WildTech about the mobile-phone data collection application called Magpi and how she and her ranger team at QENP use it to monitor and respond to wildlife health issues. She also recently presented her work at the recent Kathryn S. Fuller Science for Nature Symposium, Wired in the Wild, in Washington, DC.

Dr. Driciru presenting at the Wired in the Wild Symposium at National Geographic. Photo Credit: Andrea Santy/WWF Russell E. Train Education for Nature Program

How did you become interested in becoming a wildlife veterinarian?

When I was in primary school, I had the dream of being a doctor- irrespective of what kind of doctor, so when I went to university, I got admitted to do veterinary medicine. That was the beginning of my career. When I completed vet school, the first real employment I had was in wildlife. It was to do [research on] lions. I was a researcher on a project that was assessing the population of the lions. I worked with lions for 7 years, and it was very interesting. I got attracted to wildlife and then I realized that the wildlife sector for veterinarians was really a lot more interesting than the domestic field. So, rather than moving to the domestic veterinary practice, I just went ahead and built my career in wildlife veterinary practice.

What projects did you work on for those seven years with the lions?

One thing: assessing their population. There had not been information about lion populations in general in Uganda, so I started with one small pack- actually, where I currently work- at Queen Elizabeth National Park. So I assessed the population status of the lions there, and when I wrote the lion report for Queen Elizabeth, it won an award! So the Dutch Federation of Agriculture and Horticulture gave us more support for three years, and the project got attached to one zoo, and the scope was expanded. I moved to the largest park in Uganda- that is the Murchison Falls National Park- where I did their population status assessment. I used the samples that I took [from the lions] to write up my Masters project. So, while working on the lions, it really helped me to build my career in the wildlife sector.

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Lion resting in Queen Elizabeth National Park. Photo credit: Cody Pope, Creative Commons

I used to help the Wildlife Authority a lot– when they had problems with lion-human conflict, I would come and address the problems. I remember one time there were lions that were causing problems- they had come out of the park and they were eating livestock and they were scaring people, people had stopped moving, so I went in and translocated that lion and it was a big deal! I took it back to the Murchison Falls National Park. Then it made big news, and everyone was talking about a woman who doesn’t fear lions, who can open the mouth of the lion and how magical this woman is and how she has been driving a Land Rover- you know that’s very, very unique in Africa. It’s work that is meant for men and so they were seeing this woman doing men’s work and it made news–I felt good about it. Then when I started looking for a job, it was very easy for me to get a job with the Wildlife Authority, so I started working with the Authority in 2005; this is my tenth year working with the Wildlife Authority of Uganda.

What is it like being a woman in a male-dominated field?

Well, the good thing is that there are not very many vets in the wildlife sector in Uganda. People respect someone who does extraordinary things. They look at me as a woman doing extraordinary things-working on the lions, working on wildlife- it looks extraordinary, so they give me respect. When I go to do my work, I go entirely with men. It is challenging work, and achieving in it gives me a lot of respect. So I do not get a lot of problems working within a male-dominated environment because of that. It’s not really about people despising you, but it’s the task itself that is challenging. For me, when I succeed in challenging tasks, it gives me strength to do more.

What are typical challenges you’ve faced working as a wildlife vet in Queen Elizabeth National Park?

Well, there are a lot of risks that are involved. You go out [in the bush] and you’re darting animals- that alone is a risk. Even the environment itself–it’s out in the bush–the national parks are very remote areas of the country. There are a lot of people who don’t like to be in remote places, but for me, that is where I made my name and earn my living, so it’s okay.

Elephants at water's edge
Elephants at water’s edge in Queen Elizabeth National Park. Photo credit: Rhett Butler

Can you tell us about the app? What questions does it ask, and how do you and the rangers use the responses?

[Magpi was founded in 2003 by Dr. Joel Selanikio and Rose Donna to create free and easy mobile data collection in remote locations across the globe. Organizations using this app can develop personalized forms and access real-time data.]

So the app is a mobile-phone reporting technology that allows me as a vet to respond to wildlife health issues in real-time. If rangers find a problem in terms of wildlife health, either an animal is sick, it has been caught in a wire snare or if there are, maybe, dead animals, that informs us that there’s a problem coming up. Especially if there are dead animals, it might be an emerging disease; it might be a start of an epidemic. There are questions that are built into the app (see diagram). The rangers fill out the questions, ranging from whether the animal is alive or dead, what type of animal it is and what the rangers believe the problem is.

Once they fill out the app, their coordinates are marked and the information is sent to a server, which sends me a beep on my mobile phone that shows the information. It gives me information, such as the ranger’s name, location, animal species and the problem. So, once I receive that information, then I organize a response. If the animal is still alive but it’s in a wire, then I organize a team and we rescue the animal from the wire. If there is a dead animal and the carcass is still fresh, we have rapid tests to use on the dead animal to find out if it could be harboring a zoonotic disease. We conduct certain rapid tests [on the dead animal], especially for anthrax.

Magpi Mobile app diagram. Image credit: Magpi
Diagram of the Magpi mobile app and computer connection. Image credit: Magpi

If the animal does have a disease, which can affect both man and animals, then we have to respond. If you let the diseases spread, then you have a huge problem–remember, we are working in a national park that is visited by tourists from all over the world. We don’t want people to come to our [park] and then [catch] diseases, so the app responses help us control diseases before they spread. That’s really the important thing about this app. The identification is done in real-time, the reporting is done in real-time and the response is done in real-time. That way we arrest situations in good time.

Before you had the app, what was the process of locating animal and resolving the issue?

So before [the mobile-phone app], we just used to have ordinary GPSs. The rangers would go out with this GPS and paper forms, so when they found a problem, they would just fill the forms and then they’d bring the information when they came back from patrolling- after maybe three days. So, the difference between these two things is that the actions were delayed, now with the app, the information is instant.

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Chimpanzees are another star attraction of Uganda’s forests. Photo credit: USAID Africa bureau

How has does the data that you collect from the app changed the way the Ugandan Wildlife Authority operates? Do you plan rescues or investigate problems differently than you had in the past with the paper forms?

Apart from the quick response–the quick response is the most important thing for us–the other thing in terms of management is that it brings out information about how and where they’re dying. It has highlighted an information gap. We realize that we really don’t know why most of them are dying. We are trying to bridge the gap- so our Wildlife Veterinary Unit is now empowered. We are even building a lab and wildlife veterinary health center at QENP, and once we have equipped this, then we’ll be able to analyze samples that are pulled from these animals that have health problems.

Eventually we’ll be able to know what kind of problems the animals are facing [and bridge the existing information gap]. If the dead animals contain zoonotic diseases, then we will be able to collaborate with the Ministry of Health and the veterinary teams…to be able to control whatever problem is identified. Disease control is all about knowledge, you know that the issue is there- then you’re able to identify what particularly it is. Then after knowing what the problem it is, you’ll be able to use measures to control it. So that’s really the whole process of disease control.

Can you tell us briefly about teaching the rangers how to use the app?

So at the beginning, when we were teaching the rangers [how to use the app], we used signs. We taught them by using pictures–you draw an elephant picture, a primate picture, a buffalo and say that ‘this is this animal, if it’s lying down, it’s dead, if its limping, it’s sick’, things like that. When we send out ranger patrol teams, there is normally a group of people, maybe three, four, five–sometimes twelve–and we make sure that among this group, there’s at least one person who is able to operate the device. So, the rangers go out together and if they find a problem, the person who is holding the device then fills out the information and sends it.

Magpi app in action
The Magpi app in action on a mobile phone. Photo credit: Magpi

Have most of these rangers used mobile phones before they became rangers? Were they familiar with them?

Yeah, so most of the rangers have mobile phones, so that was the other thing that helped us. To have a mobile phone app, it’s just like using your phone, sending a text message to your friend, so it’s kind of similar.

Do you have an interesting or exciting story about saving an animal in the wild using that real-time response about the sick animal? Have you been able to quickly fix the foot or whatever is caught in the snare?

Yeah, so, the only problem sometimes we don’t have is accessibility to vehicles, but that is the only challenge that we may encounter. Once the information has come to my attention, then we quickly mobilize staff and then we go and do the rescue mission. So, most of the [missions] are for removing wires, so we just cut off the wire, wash the wound and then we treat the animal. These wires are set to catch food animals, but they’re non-discriminatory- they can catch anything, so sometimes lions, sometimes buffalo, sometimes antelope, elephants, whatever the species is. The good thing with the wire is that the moment you remove it, it’s done, as long as the removal process comes early, the animal will recover.

What other national parks have the Magpi app?

So, this app was introduced in 2011 to Queen Elizabeth as a trial to see if it actually worked. We saw that it worked, so we tried to expand it within the park to collect the required data- that is what we’ve been doing so far. Now the next thing for us is to expand it to the rest of the national parks- we have 10 national parks [in Uganda]- so we’re going to expand the program to the rest of the parks.

Do the local Ugandans benefit from eco-tourism and appreciate wildlife? And how do you maintain that in the face of human-wildlife conflicts, which would negatively impact their view on wildlife?

They do. We have revenue sharing programs with the local communities–we call them ‘Front-line communities’–these are parishes that border the national parks immediately. Our ideology is that if there are challenges that people face from wildlife, it would be these people who border the park. Because of that, when tourists pay money to enter the park, it’s called the park entry fee, we give 20% of that money back to the front-line communities, to help them, first of all, to do development projects, school projects and education projects. The other thing is that the park will have zones: we can say that a particular part of the park is strictly for tourists, and then the part of the park on the periphery of the front-line community can access certain resources. We identify those resources and then we make a Memorandum of Understanding with the community that allows them to access specific resources in certain areas. The other thing is that we allow neighboring communities, if they organize themselves in groups, to enter the park free of charge, and then we run conservation education programs for them.

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Relaxed gorillas bring many tourists to Uganda. Photo credit: Sue Palminteri

We also introduced school programs for the kids so we can make sure that wildlife is conserved in the future. So actually, the greatest numbers of people coming to the parks are school kids. We used to have them enter free of charge, but right now there’s a very small fee that is levied on them just to allow the conservation programs to continue but also to make them know that not everything is always free- that conservation has a cost. We offer conservation education programs for the kids, as well.

So that way, we try to interest the local people. We also have programs for Ugandan citizens to attract them to the park. One thing is that the local community thinks that the park is for foreigners — because of the cost that’s attributed to the parks — the cost of transport, the cost of accommodation, the cost of feeding. So right now, we have constructed affordable hotels, so our citizen tourist numbers are now increasing. So we have incentives to attract the local people and interest them in wildlife.

Do you have any words of advice for aspiring conservationists?

One thing I want to say is that, wildlife is a treasure. In Africa, we earn a lot of money from wildlife. For example, in Uganda, the wildlife industry–the tourism industry–is our country’s number one foreign exchange earner. For us, conservation is very important, to ensure the wildlife is conserved and the utilization [of wildlife] is happening sustainably and in the right manner.

For me, having worked in the wildlife sector, it’s one of the most interesting places. You see an elephant and it’s a creature that you will always marvel about. Every day of my life in the wildlife area, is like a new day in my life to see all of these creations of God- it’s amazing! So these are creatures we must protect and so everyone who’s out there, I think it would be very nice if people teamed up with us to conserve these very unique creations.

Uganda’s wildlife could probably use all our help, and you can learn more about Queen Elizabeth National Park here. To find out more about the app, please visit the Magpi website.

This interview was edited for clarity.

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