By Patience Lunda:
In 2016, Edwell Nyondo, a 37-year old game ranger was diagnonised with trypanosomiasis, commonly known as sleeping sickness.
Then he was working with Vwaza Wildlife Game Reserve.
Before the test, Nyondo had general body pains, swollen lymph nodes and a skin rash.
Several tests were conducted on Nyondo but they all came out negative until a hospital suggested that he should be tested for trypanosomiasis. And result came out positive.
“I was admitted in the hospital for over two weeks. After I recovered, I was unable to conduct routine patrols because my immune system was lowered and I still experienced other side effects such as the swelling of the lymph nodes which I still have till date,” said Nyondo.
After his recovery, Rumphi District Hospital recommended that he must be transferred to a tsetse fly free area because he would die if he happened to suffer from the disease again.
Nyondo is now at Mzuzu Nature Sanctuary where he is responsible for education on the importance of preserving the environment.
This is one of the myriad challenges the 400 men and women in uniform in the country face in their quest to keep wildlife-related crimes in check.
Department of National Parks and Wildlife says out of the nine national parks and game reserves in the country, Vwaza Marsh Game Reserve is leading in cases of the trypanosomiasis disease.
On a visit to the game reserve one Wednesday, before a salute of welcome in the wildlife reserve by the rangers, tsetse flies were a step ahead to welcome us.
“It is not possible for someone to visit the reserve without being stung by the tsetse flies. Bear with them,” announced one the rangers at the gate.
At the game reserve offices, the tsetse flies were all over like normal houseflies, biting everybody.
The offices were surrounded by cloths hang between trees painted blue and black aimed at trapping tsetse flies, according Madalitso Kapalamula a female game ranger at the reserve.
“Not all tsetse flies cause trypanosomiasis even though it is impossible to know the ones that carry the disease,” she said, adding, “The threat is deep in the forest.”
Vwaza game reserve is southwest of the Nyika Plateau and covers an area of 986 square kilometres.
The game reserve conducts its operations through four units namely Extension and Education unit, Research and Development unit, Wildlife and Management Utilisation unit and Administration.
The Research and Development unit is the unit that is responsible for collecting, analysing and interpreting data at the game reserve.
Through the unit, it has been discovered that there has been an increase in cases of sleeping sickness in Rumphi District due to Vwaza game reserve and most cases involve rangers, their families and communities surrounding the wildlife reserve.
What the tsetse fly does
Parks and Wildlife Research Officer, John Simukonda Stewart, said tsetse flies are associated with hot climates but it has been observed that they have started being in abundance even in cold seasons at the game reserve.
The development has led to the installation of insecticide- treated fabric targets which are used to eliminate a fraction of the tsetse population. However, according to Stewart, they are not enough to effectively do their intended work.
The required number of targets is 4000; the reserve has only 1000.
“Through the Malawi- Zambia Transfrontier Conservation Area project, about 1000 tsetse fly targets were installed in Vwaza game reserve but they are not adequate to eliminate part of the tsetse fly population,” Stewart said.
Despite the installation of the targets, Vwaza Game reserve is facing challenges to procure chemicals which are applied to the targets for their effectiveness in controlling the tsetse fly population.
For instance, one litre of the Glossnex chemical is purchased at K32 000 but more than 1000 litres are needed per year and the chemicals are only found in Zimbabwe and South Africa which is costly for the wildlife reserve.
Apart from costs, the targets are susceptible to vandalism by wild animals such as elephants.
Rules of engagement
Since 2017, 133 people from within the reserve and the surrounding areas have suffered from sleeping sickness. Six of them have died one of whom was a ranger.
While most of those who have survived the disease are rangers, a mark that is left on them is traumatic.
Another ranger, Simon Sichinga, said they work in fear when conducting patrols deep in the forest reserve and they have protective clothing against the tsetse flies.
“We are not fully protected from tsetse flies and for instance we go to the forest without anything to protect us and even if you see our boots, they are different because many procure them on their own,” he said.
Earlier, the game rangers were being given repellents for protection, although these proved ineffective after sometime.
Aaron Kisindire, a Parks and Wildlife Assistant said despite being at a risk of contracting the trypanosomiasis disease, the rangers are not given risk allowances when doing their job which also requires them to stay away from their families for a while.
The rangers can go up to five days for patrols.
Assistant Parks and Wildlife Officer responsible for the Extension and Education Unit, Patricia Chiwoko said the disease is also affecting the economic growth of the area because it affects livestock and communities.
“Communities think the forest is a place which brings them a disease and this is not what we want them to have in mind. We want to work with the community in protecting it because we want them to benefit from it too,” she said.
But Vwaza Marsh Game reserve Manager, Leonard Moyo, said the office, with help from Rumphi District Hospital, has been conducting screening exercises every three months to know who has contracted the disease.
Moyo added that the gesture has also been extended to communities around the reserve since the disease is also affecting them.
He then disclosed that through a partnership with Lilongwe Wildlife Trust, researchers from College of Medicine were engaged to start conducting a study to understand why tsetse flies have started being in abundance over the years to come up with the right control measures.
“We have pinned our hopes on this study because the district hospital is overwhelmed with trypanosomiasis cases and we do not understand why tsetse flies have been multiplying so much,” Moyo said.
In Malawi, trypanosomiasis is found in five districts of Rumphi, Kasungu, Nkhotakota, Ntchisi and Mzimba due to the presence of game reserves.
In an interview, Rumphi District Hospital Acting Director of Health and Social Service, Westain Nyirenda said a clinical trial is underway to come up with a new drug to treat trypanosomiasis as the drug currently being used is toxic and unregistered.
Nyirenda said the current drug needs to be handled by trained personnel as it is more fatal than the disease itself.
He said most patients that have recovered from trypanosomiasis suffer from paralysis and this is because the disease affects the brain and the side effects of the drugs that are used to cure the disease.
“The clinical trial started in 2019 and is in stage four. It is our hope that if it is successful, we will be able to treat the disease faster than we currently are and it will replace the old drug which is not even registered and it is toxic,” he said.
Director of National Parks and Wildlife, Brighton Kumchedwa said there are no plans to eliminate the whole population of tsetse flies considering that they are also part of wildlife but said the department is committed to ensure people are protected from the disease.
“We will ensure that rangers are protected even the though the problem is more pronounced at Vwaza game reserve but we have never considered eliminating the whole population of the tsetse flies,” Kumchedwa said.
The world commemorates the World Ranger Day on 31 July every year to honour game rangers that were killed or injured in the line of duty and to celebrate their achievements.
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