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Why Is The Saint Louis Zoo Tackling Camel Diseases In Kenya?

Camels are known for their ability to travel long distances across the desert without water.

But they’re also becoming an increasingly important source of milk for people in drought-prone regions. That includes East African countries like Kenya, where camel numbers have skyrocketed over the past few decades.

But introducing camels — or any species — to a new region, could mean bringing in new diseases.

The St. Louis Zoo has been studying camel diseases in Kenya to help assess their risks.

Camels sound fierce. And at over seven feet tall, adult dromedaries can be pretty intimidating. But Margaret Kinnaird, the executive director of the Mpala Research Centre in central Kenya, says camels don’t deserve their reputation for meanness. “I’ve never been spat on, I’ve never been bitten, I’ve only been sort of gummed and kissed,” Kinnaird says.

Credit Sharon Deem, Saint Louis Zoo
Milk from the camel herd at Mpala is poured into carrier tanks and transported by motorcycle to Kenya's only pasteurization plant, about 30 miles away in Nanyuki.

A couple of years ago, Kinnaird began a project on camel health with wildlife veterinarian Sharon Deem, who directs the Institute for Conservation Medicine at the Saint Louis Zoo. “Camels may have some diseases that, as the human population reaches for camel milk, these diseases could be passed to them,” Deem says.

Deem says a growing number of Kenyans are drinking camel milk — most of it unpasteurized. “These are estimates, but we really believe that up to 10 percent of Kenya’s 40 million people — so we’re talking four million people — probably drink unpasteurized camel milk,” Deem says.

Camels aren’t native to Kenya. But Margaret Kinnaird estimates that over the past 30 years, their number has grown to something on the order of three million animals.

Kinnaird says they’ve been brought in by immigrants from neighboring countries like Somalia and Sudan, where people have traditionally kept camels. And she says Kenyan ranchers are turning to camels because of their ability to survive with limited water. “People are learning that they can have camels persist throughout some very severe droughts, where they tend to lose all of their cattle, or a large majority of their cattle,” Kinnaird says.

Credit Sharon Deem, Saint Louis Zoo
A curious camel calf moves in for a close-up.

And Amos Omore of the International Livestock Research Institute in Nairobi says unlike cattle and goats, camels can keep producing substantial quantities of milk under drought conditions — which climate scientists predict will become more severe and frequent in Kenya the future. “So I would imagine that given climate change, the role of camels is bound to be even more important than it has been before for those who live in these areas,” Omore says.

Sharon Deem says with camels becoming more common in Kenya — and significant as a source of nutrition — it’s critical to find out what diseases they might be spreading.

Deem says when she began her research on camels, she really didn’t know much about them. So she started hitting the books. “I became very quickly sort of a camel expert,” Deem says. “And I think that first field season I was maybe one of the best camel vets in Kenya.”

That unusual expertise helped Deem gain the trust of some local herders, who were eager to have her check out their camels. Deem says she and her colleagues decided to focus on three diseases: brucellosis, trypanosomiasis, and Q fever.

Credit Sharon Deem, Saint Louis Zoo
At a ranch near Mpala, Margaret Kinnaird takes notes about a camel sick with trypanosomiasis as a herder looks on.

Deem says they chose those diseases not only because they could be spread to people drinking unpasteurized milk, but because they might also infect Kenya’s abundant wildlife species, like zebras and elephants.

With start-up funding from St. Louis-based Novus International, Deem worked with Margaret Kinnaird and local ranchers to test 150 camels over the course of two years. “We collected blood samples, fecal samples, as well as tick samples,” Deem says.

Deem says the testing didn’t turn up much brucellosis or trypanosomiasis. But almost a third of the camels — and more than half the ticks — tested positive for Q fever, a bacterial disease that can be fatal in humans. “So we really feel that Q fever in camels could be very important in this region,” Deem says.

Deem says the next step will be to take a closer look at Q fever and how it’s affecting livestock, people, and wildlife. She also wants to keep working with Kenyan ranchers on what she calls “camel 101” — what they can do to keep their camels healthy.

Follow Véronique LaCapra on Twitter: @KWMUScience