RODENT TRAPPING with PREDICT
5:15 am: The tents are wrapped in darkness and only the beginnings of birdsong when cell phone alarms start echoing through the campsite. Whispering to each other, the HALI team members check off a well-known list…dryshipper, ice packs, cryovials, mobile centrifuge…as they squeeze the supplies into the back of the field car. Headlamps click off and the team is ready to travel the winding dirt road to the farms where their rodent traps are waiting. On the way, they watch the villages waking up – women carrying water, dogs slipping like shadows between the houses, and roosters announcing the morning. Children wave from doorways as the sun starts to spill over the hills.
Rodents of varying shapes and size are already waiting in the traps when the car arrives. The HALI team members waste no time in making a count and moving the traps to the shade. It’s still very early, but the clear sky promises hot hours ahead. By the side of the single large tree, a sampling station springs to life. The table unfolds, data sheets are prepared, and rows of labeled tubes stand ready. Pulling on their PPE (personal protective equipment), the team attracts attention from people passing at a distance and the long line of cows walking to water.
7 am, and the sampling begins. Working carefully to keep the team and animals safe, the rodent handlers collect the blood, feces, and oral swabs that will allow them to look for viruses that can be transmitted from wildlife to humans. Rodents, like the ones being sampled, commonly share the farms and houses of the people living in rural village areas. HALI is investigating the risk of emerging diseases that could be spread in saliva, blood, or droppings from these animals. As changing environments drive people and wildlife into closer contact, the chances for disease transmission increase. Understanding these changes and the pathogens present in these areas helps HALI protect animal and human health.
1 pm, and the sun is baking down. The HALI team has been working tirelessly to carefully anesthetize each animal and collect the key samples before releasing the rodents at the sites where they were captured. A cable drapes out of the hood of the car connecting the battery to an inverter to an electric strip to the mobile centrifuge, where the blood samples are spinning. The whir of the motor and the sight of boxes being lowered into the foggy interior of the dry shipper are drawing the sampling to a close. After the last of the samples are safely stored and everything has been cleaned, the HALI team members climb out of their PPE suits with a sigh of relief, knowing that a lunch of ugali, mchicha (greens), and kuku (chicken) awaits them in a nearby village.
4 pm, and the evening will soon be approaching. After organizing and cleaning their supplies and taking a short, but well-earned break, the HALI team is back in the field, scoping out new sites for trapping near a pastoralist boma. Surrounded by the listening family as well as their cows, goats, and dogs, the team sits down to discuss HALI’s work and to ask permission to trap rodents in the area. With patience and a lot of laughter, the Maasai family listens to the strange request, and then watches curiously from a distance as team members bait the traps with a recently perfected blend of peanut butter and corn flour, and head out to set them. The family is unfailingly welcoming, and when the team members return for sampling the next morning, hot tea and freshly made vitumbua (rice doughnuts) will be waiting for them, along with another round of questions.
7 pm, and the team is heading back to Tungamalenga, the village closest to their campsite. Over a late dinner of wali (rice) and mbuzi choma (roasted goat) with the bass of bongo fleva songs and the hum of a generator in the background, they discuss the plans for their next and final day of trapping for this trip. The following evening will find them in Iringa again, but travel for the samples has only begun. Soon, these samples will be headed to the HALI lab team’s new viral diagnostic laboratory at Sokoine University of Agriculture in Morogoro for RNA extraction and real-time PCR analyses. From there they might make their way to additional labs in Uganda and the US. You won’t find the HALI field team waiting at the office to hear the results. They’re already in a new environment- talking to the communities and scouting out the best bat roosts in town for their next trapping trip.
“A day in the field with HALI” is a new series of blog posts that will follow the diverse field activities of the HALI team. Stay tuned for future posts on water sampling, household interviews, and surveying buffalo!