Virus Hunter

By Packer, Craig | Natural History, October 1997 | Go to article overview

Virus Hunter


Packer, Craig, Natural History


"We're going to have to shoot him on the run," Richard Kock shouted above the roar of the Land Rover. "Pull up as close as you can and don't slow down." The Kenyan driver nodded and sent the pickup weaving through the desert scrub, accelerating over the coarse red sand. Richard stood in the back, gripping the roll-bar with one hand and clutching his capture gun with the other. As we glimpsed the lumbering neck of our quarry through the brush, the driver shifted gears and swerved between two lowcrowned acacia trees. The next time we spotted the giraffe, it was loping past a clearing with an aluminum dart dangling from its shoulder. The needle had struck bone and the tranquilizer had failed to inject. A second dart had glanced off one of its hind legs. Wary after two ineffectual hits, the animal seemed to sense the range of Richard's gun. Our only hope was to chase after it as fast as we possibly could.

"This would be so much easier from the chopper," Richard muttered as he ducked beneath an oncoming acacia branch. Beside him, Philip Matthews pulled a thorn from his shoulder and said, "Easier, but much more expensive." He would be our helicopter pilot later on the trip. The driver swerved once more, and the giraffe disappeared from view. Smiling at Philip's words and pointing to the three wildlife rangers in the back of the pickup, Richard said, "And we could not have brought these chaps along with us."

Richard Kock is senior veterinary adviser to the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS). Born in Zimbabwe and educated at Cambridge, he has worked in Kenya for the past six years, establishing an effective disease surveillance unit with veterinarians John Wambua, Githaaiga Kamau, and Jakob Mwanzia. Richard always seems to be "up country," dealing with one emergency or another. He's helped to translocate a number of problem animals (rogue elephants that feed on local crops) or endangered species (black rhinoceroses and Kenya's only endemic antelope, the hirola). However, his real interest is the epidemiology of wildlife disease. He's dealt with listeriosis in colobus monkeys, cerebral nematodes in bushbuck, canine distemper in lions, leishmaniasis in baboons, and various cattle-borne diseases in buffaloes and other ungulates. But the most pressing problem now is rinderpest, a disease of ruminant animals, primarily cattle. It belongs to a class of viruses-the morbilliviruses, which include measles and distemper-that display an alarming ability to hop from one species to another. Spread mostly by food or water that has been contaminated by the dung of sick animals, its clinical signs can include high fever, discharge from the eyes, nose, and mouth, and severe diarrhea. Since 1993, Tsavo National Park has lost 90 percent of its buffaloes to rinderpest and well over half of everything else-antelopes, giraffes, wildebeests, kudus, and gazelles. In the same time, Meru National Park has lost 90 percent of its ungulates, mostly through disease; poaching took the rest. Rinderpest has now spread throughout the southern half of Kenya (even to Nairobi) and across the border into Tanzania, where it is within striking distance of the Serengeti. On this trip the rinderpest problem had brought Richard Kock to Kenya's northeastern frontier in search of evidence of recent outbreaks.

The sun sank lower in the sky, but the air was still stiflingly hot. The giraffe showed no signs of fatigue, and we had driven a long way from the dusty government outpost of Wajir. Startled by our breakneck chase, goats swarmed tightly around herd boys who gaped at us as we raced past. Otherwise the world consisted entirely of low, tangled bushes, blue sky, and this galloping "totem pole" that didn't want to participate in anyone's veterinary survey. At last we reached a large clearing, and the driver managed to pull up within about seventy feet of the giraffe. Richard fired again. The loud thwack of dart against flank told us that the drug finally had been injected. …

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