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Why Hyenas, other scavengers are a vital reserve

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By Njenga Simon

The last few weeks have been awash with clichés and trends gracing the media space, with social media taking the lead in driving political annotations as the country rallies to yet another national polls – slated for August 9.

Roots Party Presidential candidate Prof George Wajackoyah’s manifesto has suggested an economic recovery plan for Kenya by commercializing the gonads of the hyena (Crocuta crocuta) and harvesting the sought-after venom from snakes for sale to Chinese markets.

Kenyans on social media have – unfortunately turned the conversations for entertainment memes and pick up lines.

In a quick rejoinder, Union of Veterinary Practitioners of Kenya (UVPK) responded promptly by issuing a resounding statement disparaging the idea and calling it a recipe for epidemics that can only regrettably remind us of the Covid-19 scourge.

Its aggressive tentacles squeezed our healthcare systems by unselectively wiping out a considerable percentage of the world population through grave clinical complexities of the viral disease.

The spotted hyena is generally found widespread across Sub-Saharan Africa and is classified as a scavenger, with its habitat having other predatory competitors like the lion, cheetahs, leopards, African wild dogs, and jackals among others.

Though they fight off the stronger members of the cat family, they are essentially clean-up species as scavengers beside jackals, vultures and coyotes among others at different trophic levels.

Scavengers which are scientifically defined as animals that consume carrion (decaying flesh) that has died from a predatory food chain/web or else due to natural causes have for eons supported ecological balance in reducing residual amounts of carrion and offering an enabling capacity for decomposers which are at the bottom of the food chain.

With the debate of capitalizing on the spotted hyena gonads for human consumption, the current recognition of the spotted hyena population as near threatened mostly due to degradation of savanna and range lands, commercialization without an absolute strategy on sustainability will add it to the list of endangered species due to quick capitalization without sustainability, to follow the already endangered striped hyena in some West African ecologies.

Of great concern is the least focused area of the role played by the spotted hyena in the pathogenesis of mostly bacterial and viral infections within their ecosystems.

They have been found to harbor antibodies against rabies, canine herpes, canine brucellosis, leptospirosis, anaplasmosis and parvovirus in Serengeti National Park. This is besides harbouring protozoan parasites like the Genus Hepatozoon and the parasitic cysts of Trichinella.

While serological studies on body titers of Brucella abortus and Trypanosoma congolense are inconclusive, further studies on dietary infection from direct consumption of infected carcasses from herbivores, would enlighten the policymakers and implementers of species with commercialization for those with a potential within the global trade.

While it may seem innovative to cash in on hyped and street-declared business ventures, the economic ramifications without concrete data on species population, ecology and niche status, evolutionary pathogenesis, the economic viability of farmed wildlife, and risk assessment of symbiotic pathogens among many other epidemiologic principles, may end up boomeranging on our Healthcare systems.

It, therefore, justifies a comprehensive study of not just the spotted and striped hyena, but also hundreds of other scavengers targeted for exploitation through commercialization.

This will avoid mistakes made hastily in the past to net in the top dollar-driven market in the case of the African donkey where slaughterhouses were commissioned, and licensed for the export market only for the donkey numbers to plummet at an alarming rate with stakeholders managing to overturn the trade licenses in a bid to reverse the historical losses.

The Writer is Project Veterinary Officer –KENDAT.

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