Endangered natural animal pest controllers: Oxpeckers extinct in Uganda’s South Western cattle corridor

Endangered natural animal pest controllers: Oxpeckers extinct in Uganda’s South Western cattle corridor

By Kajumba Godfrey

John Kayangire is a cattle farmer in Rutooma, Kashari Mbarara District, South Western Uganda. Like many cattle farmers, he only looks on as his animals continue to be infested with ticks, “the veterinary drugs on the market these days are fake, they can do nothing to the blood-sucking parasites”.

At the age of 98 years, Kayangire, a former police officer and veterinary doctor is still physically strong and has vivid memories of how they used to fight ticks during his childhood days. “We used to hand pick the ticks from the cattle, pin them on sticks and roast them on fire. As children, we would eat some of the roasted ticks” he narrates.   

“Our efforts were always greatly supplemented by the birds we call “Esasi” in our local language. These would be all over the cattle, in the ears, on the udder, tail and cattle anus picking ticks”, Kayangire adds.

These birds would do the same to the wild animals like buffaloes and bushbucks as these wildlife animals would often interact with the cattle since there was little to separate the grazing areas then like the current wildlife-protected areas.

“Esasi” commonly known as oxpeckers and scientifically called “Buphagus” were effective in the control of ticks in local cattle breeds before the introduction of foreign cattle breeds in the country.

Kayangire explains that the introduction of foreign cattle breeds in the country came with the use of veterinary drugs to control ticks that had started becoming a problem for the new cattle breeds.

“Government mobilized livestock farmers to set up cattle crashes and distributed livestock drugs to them based on zones to administer drugs to the animals. In Western Uganda where Mbarara District falls, the first livestock drug we received was Gamatox before other drugs were later introduced to the area” he says.

Tom Kayangire
Tom Kayangire a former veterinary shows some of the veterinary books used to sensitise farmers in the fight against ticks in the colonial days

This led to the death of many oxpeckers that ate the contaminated ticks while others migrated from the cattle corridor to the nearby game parks like Queen Elizabeth National Park and Lake Mburo National Park.

“These birds are still in the game reserves picking ticks from the buffaloes and bushbucks, they left the cattle corridor after many of them died when people started using livestock drugs to fight ticks” Kayangire narrates. 

The National Drug Authority (NDA) – the government of Uganda agency mandated to regulate drugs in the country, including their manufacture, importation, distribution and licensing says all veterinary drugs on the market are safe for the animals and environment. 

Abiaz Rwamiwiri, the NDA Spokesperson says the drugs allowed on the market are well tested “When the drugs are being manufactured, they go through various stages and testing to ensure that they are not harmful to the animals, humans and the ecosystem including birds, bees, crops, grass, water among other ecosystem organisms”.  

He however attributes the veterinary drugs threat in the western cattle corridor ecosystem to the misuse of these drugs by the farmers.

“Indeed, some animal species are no longer seen in the western cattle corridor, animals are getting blind while farmers and farm attendants are getting strange diseases. All this is due to farmers’ attempts to get rid of ticks” Rwamwiri discloses.

A tick-infested cow that turned blind after the farmer used a concoction of drugs on it to get rid of the ticks.

He explains that problems started with the introduction of foreign cattle breeds, “the local Ankore cattle were not greatly affected by ticks but were not commercially viable. This led to the introduction of Frisians that give lots of milk a day, mature fast and also give you more beef. However, they are susceptible to ticks and tick-borne diseases”.   

Over time, these ticks became drug resistant after evolving, leaving farmers stranded, “their Frisian cattle started dying, the farmers went into panic and started using a cocktail of veterinary drugs and in the extreme situations using a concoction of veterinary drugs and pesticides” Rwamwiri narrates.

Bottles of used veterinary drugs found at one of the farms
Bottles of used veterinary drugs found at one of the farms.

The NDA spokesperson says these cocktails and concoctions have turned out to be dangerous to the animals, farmers and their farm workers, the ecosystem and the markets where they sell their products, “the animals have gone blind when these mixtures are applied on them, the oxpeckers are now extinct in the Western cattle corridor, while pollinators like the bees are also at a threat”. 

Jeconious Musingwire – a retired environmentalist says ticks are the major food for the oxpeckers, “the ticks would be on the bodies of the cattle, they would move to the cattle and pick the ticks for food”.

Data viz[Oxpeckers observed on specific host species across six study areas in northern Tanzania.]

Link to view:https://public.flourish.studio/visualisation/14813188/

Embed code:<div class=”flourish-embed flourish-chart” data-src=”visualisation/14813188″><script src=”https://public.flourish.studio/resources/embed.js“></script></div>

Musingwire adds that these indigenous birds had grown in numbers in the cattle corridor until the introduction of veterinary drugs to fight ticks in the introduced Frisians breeds of cattle, “the oxpeckers ran out of food and many migrated to the protected areas looking for food from animals similar to the cattle family like the buffaloes and bushbucks”. 

He notes that even in the wild where these birds had run to, they are threatened as many left the cattle corridor with veterinary drug residues, “they continue to die in the game reserves of veterinary drugs residues and also limited food supply”.  

In a research by experts in animal health published by ScienceDirect and the National Library of Medicine, National Center for Biotechnology Information on Cattle ticks and tick-borne diseases: a review of Uganda’s situation, the country suffers an aggregated annual loss – direct and indirect of over 1.1 billion US dollars in the ticks and ticks borne diseases complex every year.  

Rwamwiri cites the lack of enough extension staff as the major reason why farmers have taken the role of medicating their animals into their own hands.

Abiaz Rwamwiri
Abiaz Rwamwiri – the NDA Spokesperson (in a green shirt) at a farm with other NDA staff taking a farmer through how best to use his spray pump.

According to the Ministry of Agriculture, Animal Industry and Fisheries media release in 2019, the current extension worker to farming household ratio is about 1:1,800, which is still too high compared to the internationally accepted ratio of 1:500. 

“Farmers have ended up mixing and coming up with these environmentally dangerous compounds as they try to find solutions to the ill health of their animals and also get rid of the ticks” Rwamwiri explains. This is because the number of extension staff in the country is low. 

The farmers are desperate for solutions and this has led to misuse or abuse of the would-be safe veterinary drugs, “it’s recommended that farmers change their veterinary drugs on a farm after at least a year. However, with most farmers dipping or spraying their cattle weekly, some use different drugs every week while others change every month in some instances overdosing while others under-dosing” he observes.

With no professional advice from the extension staff, cases of drug-resistant ticks are recorded leaving farmers squeezed on the wall on how to save their source of livelihood. They end up resorting to harmful veterinary drug cocktails plus the concoctions with pesticides.

Jeconious Musingwire who for several years worked at Uganda’s national environment watchdog – The National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) says apart from the veterinary drugs, the rampant deforestation in the cattle corridor and destruction of neighbouring wetlands has greatly contributed to the extinction of the oxpeckers.

Environmentalist Jeconeous Musingwire
Environmentalist Jeconeous Musingwire

The cattle corridor used to have huge trees where they would set their breeding nests while others moved to the banks of the wetlands, “the destruction of their breeding places has affected their multiplication and just like the Uganda Crane, they are near extinction”.

Musingwire wants nature conservationists to place the oxpeckers on the “Red List”. According to The International Union for Conservation of Nature, species on the Red List are at risk of extinction.

He says it is high time collective efforts are taken to conserve these birds, “we need to elevate them from the level we have been seeing them and place them under the Red List to save them from total extinction through addressing issues that are causing the extinction like the veterinary drugs and the breeding grounds”.

Abiaz Rwamwiri – the NDA spokesperson insists that the veterinary drugs on the market are safe if well handled and used, “the drugs on the market can effectively fight ticks without harming the ecology, if farmers don’t revise their ways of handling these drugs we are going to lose more especially in farming as pollinators like bees are likely to also get extinct”.

The state minister for animal husbandry  Lt. Col (Rtd) Bright Rwamirama says currently they are working on two tick vaccines, “ the vaccines are in final trial, people should be patient as we try to make sure that the vaccines are not harmful to the animals, human beings and the environment”. 

This story has been produced in partnership with InfoNile with support from IUCN/TRAFFIC and with funding from JRS Biodiversity Foundation and Earth Journalism Network.

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