Montana State University

MSU student to use Fulbright for study of disease in Zambian wildlife, livestock

December 4, 2012 -- by Sepp Jannotta, MSU News Service


MSU doctoral candidate Angela Brennan will travel to Zambia in 2013 on a Fulbright Fellowship to study the effects of disease in wildlife and livestock populations in and around Liuwa Plain National Park.    High-Res Available

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BOZEMAN - As Montana State University's lone recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship in 2012, Angela Brennan is eagerly awaiting her chance to travel to Zambia to study the effects of disease on wildlife and livestock.

Brennan, a doctoral student in the Department of Ecology, said plans to launch her nine-month Fulbright project this year in Liuwa Plain National Park were shelved temporarily to allow the seasonal rain to clear out of the region. Liuwa is home to one of Africa's great migrations.

Once the rainy season abates, Brennan will investigate how brucellosis, foot-and-mouth disease and bovine tuberculosis affect Liuwa's wildlife, particularly blue wildebeest, which migrate back and forth across Liuwa. While she's there, Brennan will be working on behalf of two African conservation groups - Zambian Carnivore Programme and the African Parks Network.

"Wildebeest are the dominant herbivore on the landscape," Brennan said. "Like bison once did on the Great Plains of North America, they play a pivotal role in the Liuwa region's ecology. And that's why working on their conservation is so important."

Of concern is whether disease transmission occurs between the wildebeest population, which numbers in the tens of thousands, and domesticated livestock. But Brennan said the project's goal, both from a conservation perspective and for primary research, is to study wildebeest population dynamics and to better understand just how prevalent these diseases are in the system.

Cattle herding is important to the economy of the Lozi people who live in some 400 villages scattered around the region. While transmission of diseases like brucellosis to humans is relatively rare in the developed world, it can be a deadly problem for people in rural Zambia.

Because there is potential for wildebeest and cattle to comingle and for disease to spread back and forth, Brennan will use blood samples, radio collars and telemetry to map overlap in habitat use and to understand infection rates and disease transmission.

Brennan, who will have help from her husband, Scott Brennan, said the project will also focus on mapping the remote and under-charted landscape.

"Part of this will be trying to definitively map out where the villages and cattle grazing areas are and how they intersect with migration routes," Brennan added.

Brennan said the ecosystem was devastated by decades of poaching and overharvesting.

Several scientists from the Zambian Carnivore Programme (ZCP) are now working on graduate degrees in ecology, mostly through MSU. Brennan's research will complement work begun by Jassiel M'Soka over the past two years, while he comes to MSU for courses in the spring.

Until several lions were relocated by ZCP to Liuwa Plain National Park in recent years, the area's once thriving lion population had dwindled to one solitary lioness, which the locals call Lady Liuwa. M'Soka has been studying the ecology of Liuwa's lions, hyenas, cheetahs and African wild dogs, all of which depend on the wildebeest as prey.

Liuwa Plain has become a hub for wildlife conservation in part because the Zambian government has looked to capitalize on the potential for ecotourism.

Still, Brennan's project will set her among a small cadre of biologists working in the vastness of Zambia's parks.

A significant portion of that group is affiliated with MSU, said Scott Creel, one of Brennan's advisers and MSU professor of ecology.

Several Zambians are pursuing graduate degrees in ecology at MSU. One of those graduate students, Wigganson Matandiko, comes to MSU by way of a Fulbright fellowship of his own. Matandiko is a doctoral candidate who has been working in Zambia's Kafue National Park with Paul Schuette, a former MSU doctoral student.

All of them, together with Brennan, are supported by a $1 million grant that the National Science Foundation recently awarded Creel and two former MSU doctoral students, Matt Becker and Dave Christianson.

"I'm very excited about all of the progress that these students are making and about the links we're forming with Zambian Wildlife Authority by helping some of their best biologists come to MSU for graduate degrees," Creel said. "Angela's Fulbright is a significant step forward because we now have one Fulbright Fellow going each direction. The research provides great opportunities for students from both countries to approach ecological research from completely new angles, and to learn from one another in the process."

Paul Cross agreed. Cross, MSU adjunct professor of ecology and disease ecologist with the U.S. Geological Society at the Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center, is also advising Brennan.

"This Fulbright is a great opportunity for Angela to get a different perspective on things," Cross said. "Currently, her perspective comes from the work she's doing on elk populations in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem."

In the northern Rockies, ecology projects can seem to stack up like game pieces on a map. Cross said that the logistics of collecting wildlife data in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem can sometimes be easier than navigating a research field crowded with scientists from various universities and government agencies.

"This Zambia experience will be almost the exact opposite," Cross said. "Obviously there are not as many people piled up working on top of each other. I think that will provide her with a lot more breadth in comparing conservation management in a highly managed system like the greater Yellowstone versus a developing country like Zambia."

Brennan is in her fourth year of a doctoral project to study how the seasonal congregation of elk herds affects the spread of brucellosis in 10 Wyoming elk populations. If there's an upside to having to wait out the sub-Saharan rainy season, Brennan said it has been the extra time she's had to work on her doctoral research.

"I'm in the process of analyzing the data and, of course, writing the dissertation," Brennan said.
Brennan, who hails from Minnesota, holds an undergraduate degree in biology from the University of Wisconsin La Crosse and a master's degree in environmental science from Western Washington University.

Brennan will be one of 1,700 American students, scholars, teachers, scientists and artists to travel abroad on Fulbright scholarships for the 2012-2013 academic year, with a goal of providing cultural exchange and increased mutual understanding among nations. The program is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State.

"Not only is a Fulbright a prestigious award for Angela and for MSU, it gives her experience that will be invaluable as she returns to Montana and looks to the next step of her career," said Sally O'Neill, Fulbright Program coordinator for MSU's Office of International Programs. "The connection between her Fulbright and dissertation research will certainly directly benefit Montana in the field of wildlife biology - which is extremely important to our state."

The Brennans will fly to the Zambian capital, Lusaka, in March. Once in Zambia, they will work closely with Matt Becker, an MSU doctoral graduate and CEO and program manager with the Zambia Carnivore Programme.

Just getting around Liuwa, a mostly roadless, lion-inhabited wilderness nearly the size of Glacier National Park, will be another fundamental aspect of coming home with a successful project. Brennan said the couple plans to cover ground within Liuwa primarily via motorbike.

They plan to return to Bozeman in December.

While the landscapes and cultures are different, Brennan said her research on elk and her work in Zambia share a fundamental approach to wildlife biology.

"It's not always about a species or a place but rather it's about a question," Brennan said. "Once you have that you can really start digging into the fun stuff. That's where you start to see certain species and places with a perspective that only comes from spending time in the field armed with a good question."

Sally O\'Neill, Fulbright Program adviser, Office of International Programs, (406) 994-7688 or sallyo@montana.edu