Evi for the FKMP: A man and a dog in the Derbyshire hills, England… It won’t be long before your photo changes to a man with a meerkat on his shoulder, in the Kalahari… Thanks, Stuart, for the opportunity to do this interview, I’m sure our Friends and website visitors will want to learn more about you, what you plan to do at the KMP, and why. You graduated 6 years ago, from Royal Veterinary College in London, and now come back to start a PhD. What did you work in the past years?
Stuart Patterson: After graduating in 2007, I spent a few weeks working as a locum small animal vet, and then spent five years working in farm animal practice, mainly with cattle and sheep in the UK. I worked in several areas of the country, and gathered an array of useful experiences and interesting stories! I then studied for a MSc in Veterinary Epidemiology in London (2012-13) learning about how to investigate disease and its control in populations. I am currently working on a research project to conclude my masters degree; looking at the disease risk to Amur Leopards in the Russian Far East. Numbers are critically low (estimates range from 25-40 in the wild) and so a captive release program has been planned to establish a second, back-up population. My project looks to complement other work being carried out by looking at how big an impact diseases such as distemper could have on the likelihood of success for the reintroduction.
FKMP: What made you turn back to the academic path?
Stuart: Working with wildlife was always my long term goal from a young age. After getting my veterinary qualification and gaining some experience in practice, I looked at how I could best use my background to contribute in the field. Much of modern farm animal work is concerned with improving health at a herd/population level, and so the idea of applying this to wildlife appealed to me. I wanted to be able to do “herd health work but with wild populations”, and so returned to college for further training in epidemiology. This PhD project will be my first step into putting this plan into action.
FKMP: The focus of your PhD study is tuberculosis in meerkats: to understand it better, but also to develop means to fight it, with a vaccination study. What are your goals for the first 1-2 years?
Stuart: The key to being able to prevent disease spread is to understand transmission. Once we have knowledge of how and where a disease spreads, we know where to block it. The early stages of the project will therefore focus on looking at how disease is moving, and also how effective the vaccine is, before moving on to looking at bringing the two aspects together.
FKMP: How do you plan to reach these goals?
Stuart: I intend to conduct a survey of the population to look at how prevalent tuberculosis is in the meerkats. This combined with disease history from the site will give me my first set of information: who is infected.
Fortunately the Kalahari Meerkat Project has an extensive database looking into all sorts of aspects of meerkats lives which has been collected over several years. I am very grateful to all those who have contributed to collecting this information. My intention is to study this data, alongside work done previously at the site, to get my second set of information: what behaviours and life characteristics increase the risk of disease?
FKMP: So the 1st step of your project is the assessment of TB situation in the current population, the 2nd step the analysis of the project’s history data related to TB. Your hypothesis is that some individuals or “roles” in the group are more likely to transmit TB than others – like rovers, helpers, or dominants? And those are the ones you will then target in the 3rd step, with the vaccination study? Sounds very elegant to me, to focus on those individuals that are the most active transmitters…
Stuart: Absolutely, yes, the plan will be to target those key individuals involved in the transmission chain. Traditional blanket vaccination strategies can be expensive, and also depend upon achieving vaccinating a certain proportion of the population. If not enough individuals are treated, then the strategy is ineffective.
FKMP: Are there other fields, or species, that could profit of your work?
Stuart: Yes! The principle of a targeted approach to vaccination has been shown to be successful in theory, but not yet in practice. If it can be shown that theory can be translated to practice then this approach could be used to control TB in other ecosystems, as well as with other diseases. The involvement of wildlife in TB spread is a delicate issue worldwide and progress towards its control could benefit buffalo and lions in Kruger National Park, or domestic cattle and badgers in my home country, UK, to give just two examples.
FKMP: Coming back to the meerkats… How will you decide which groups you use for the vaccination study, and which ones have to serve as the control groups that are not vaccinated?
Stuart: Allocation of vaccine will depend upon which characteristics are identified as potential risk points for disease transmission. This will become apparent as the initial database analysis progresses. At the moment I therefore can’t say where vaccine will be used – or, for example, whether Aztecs will be a vaccination group whereas Lazuli are the control that doesn’t get a treatment…
FKMP: Can you rely on tested methods, or will you have to establish your own protocols?
Stuart: Evaluating and developing both vaccination and diagnostic protocols will be an important aspect of the project, both to allow me to carry out my own work, and as an outcome of the PhD.
FKMP: What types of intervention do you expect, as part of your study? Will your study require the current protocol – i.e. euthanisation of meerkats with clear signs of TB – to change?
Stuart: The intention of the project is to look at the effect of vaccination and its strategic use. Ideally other interventions will be kept to a minimum so that any effects of vaccination are not mixed up with effects from any other changes.
FKMP: What will be the benefits for the meerkats, of your study? Do you expect to wipe out TB in the KMP population?
Stuart: Reduction of TB in the KMP meerkat population would be a fantastic outcome for me. Clearly this is an issue that has affected these animals (and their supporters) for a period of time. Control of TB would be a benefit to all and bringing the number of cases down will be a mark of the success of the vaccination strategies.
As for completely eliminating the disease, that will depend upon how disease is maintained in the colony and how successful the vaccine itself is. If the circulation of disease in the study site is being “topped up” by external sources such as other, wild, animals in the area, then it will be more difficult to completely eliminate all cases.
FKMP: Coming back to your PhD project. It is planned for three and a half years. How much time do you plan to spend in the field?
Stuart: I am likely to spend around 18 months in the Kalahari during the course of my work…. This will depend upon how various lines of work develop. So far, none of my family nor friends seems to believe me that this is any way a hardship!
FKMP: Do you also plan to do vet work while at the KMP, for example perform meerkat captures, or post-mortems? And would you be certified to assist the local farmers if one of their cows had mastitis?
Stuart: As a graduate of the Royal Veterinary College, my veterinary qualification is recognised in South Africa, and I am currently going through the process of registering with the South African Veterinary Council to allow me to practice there. Being able to work with the meerkats as you describe will be essential to the project. I carried out national bovine mastitis consultancy whilst working in the UK, so that was rather an apt question – no doubt I would be happy to offer advice!
FKMP: Well, just watch out… your cow could as well be an eland cow… What are your hobbies?
Stuart: Mostly active ones! Most weekends at home I find myself playing in the front row for a local rugby team. I’ve recently undergone Mountain Leader training and so am currently expanding my logbook of mountaineerng days to complete that qualification. A more recent interest is scuba diving which has opened up completely new environments for me. The remainder of my free time is taken up with military fitness training, socialising with friends, and reading historical fiction in my quieter moments.
FKMP: South Africa offers both magnificent mountains and great dive opportunities – just not in the Kalahari… Other than that, what are you looking forward to most, what least?
Stuart: I first learned about this opportunity in February this year. That’s meant five months about hearing about the characters of these meerkats from several people that have worked at the project, and I think that it’s about time that I met them myself now. I am very excited about getting out to the Kalahari and experiencing the project for myself. Slightly less predictably perhaps, as the son of two mathematicians, I’m also really looking forward to getting hold of the data from the project and working with the numbers! Any time spent reading wildlife literature will show you that data on individual animals is like gold dust when dealing with non-domestic species, and so the information collected by the Kalahari Meerkat Project was a massive draw to this PhD.
What am I looking forward to the least? Hmmm..I think that checking the toilet for scorpions is going to be a bit of a culture shock for me- we don’t get many of those in Dudley where I’m from!
FKMP: Just catch those scorpions and feed them to the meerkat pups that beg the loudest – pups ARE loud, mark my words… Thanks a lot, Stuart, for this interview! I am sure I can speak for the entire FKMP team and the Friends in wishing you a good start at the KMP – we’re very much looking forward to hearing how things go.
Stuart: Thank you very much to the Friends of the KMP for your support in this project. I am very grateful for this opportunity, and hope to be meeting some of you in South Africa over the coming years.
Click here to read Stuart’s CV.