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Working on the wild side
  1. Tony Sainsbury


The Zoological Society of London and the Royal Veterinary College jointly run Masters courses on wild animals – one in wild animal health and another in wild animal biology. Senior lecturer Tony Sainsbury explains

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OVER the past 30 years, interventions for reasons of health, welfare and the conservation of free-living wild animals have been increasingly necessary, and specialist veterinary expertise is required in order to assess and control diseases in wildlife. Emerging infectious diseases are also recognised as a serious hazard both for wild animals and for the domestic animal and human populations that interact with these species. In addition, a large number of wild animal species are kept in captivity in zoos and in laboratories, which has led to an increased demand for specialist skills and knowledge.

(above) Recent research projects have examined the quantity of illegal bushmeat smuggled through French airports, and (right) the behavioural reaction of Amur leopards to Siberian tiger faeces with a view to training reintroduced leopards to avoid conflict with tigers

Recognising this, in 1994 the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and the Royal Veterinary College (RVC) initiated a Masters course in Wild Animal Health (MScWAH) for veterinary graduates. Since then, 191 vets from 47 countries have graduated.

For graduates in biological science and zoology, the organisations later launched a course leading to a Masters in Wild Animal Biology (MScWAB). Participants work and study alongside veterinary graduates taking the MScWAH as well as learning from internationally renowned experts in their field.

The MScWAH course provides tuition in the management of captive and free-living wild animals and the epidemiology, control and treatment of disease. The MScWAB provides an understanding of the health and welfare of captive and free-living wild animals, together with research methodologies relevant to the study of wildlife health.

The courses

Both courses are 12 months in duration, of which eight months are spent in taught lectures, practicals, visits, demonstrations and problem-based learning, followed by a four-month research project. A large proportion of the practical element takes the form of rotations during which the animal health students work with the vets at London Zoo, Whipsnade Zoo and the Institute of Zoology in clinical and pathological work on both captive (zoo) and free-living wild animals.

The biology students also work on pathological examinations and have the opportunity to work with the curatorial and zoo keeping staff at both zoos, and with external institutions that work on the management and monitoring of free-living wild animals, for example, using echolocation detectors to conduct bat surveys at the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust at Barnes in south-west London.

The content of both courses provides an insight into the developing field of wild animal health as revealed by external lecturers, some from continental Europe and the USA, and over 70 internal tutors. Topics covered are as diverse as the pharmacokinetics of therapeutic agents in wild animals or management of waterfowl in captivity, and the influence of climate change on vectorborne disease prevalence in Europe.

These taught courses are divided into eight modules: conservation biology; the impact of disease on populations; health and welfare of captive wild animals; interventions; detection, surveillance and emerging diseases; evaluation of health and welfare of captive wild animals; ecosystem health; and the practical module. The teaching methods are chosen to encourage critical thinking, decision-making, exploration and inquiry, and this is complemented with visits to selected advanced institutions.

At the ZSL, students benefit from expos­ure to high-quality conservation science, global conservation programmes, access to the internationally renowned library and practical opportunities, while the RVC offers supremely equipped laboratories and teaching facilities.

Research projects

Students conduct a research project, which can be on any aspect of wild animal health or biology. Subjects can be chosen from a diverse set of disciplines and the projects are devised to answer a remarkable range of questions.

Recent projects have, for example, examined the quantity of illegal bushmeat smuggled through French airports to provide a provisional assessment of the disease risks and conservation consequences of this practice; determined the reaction of Amur leopards to Siberian tiger faeces with a view to training reintroduced Amur leopards to avoid tigers and reduce losses through predation; and undertaken a cost-benefit ana-lysis of the wildlife veterinary programme in Chitwan National Park, Nepal. Other projects have investigated sperm-female tract interactions in the Bennett's wallaby; sequenced the leptin and leptin receptor genes in the Asian elephant for use in future studies of captive female elephant acyclicity; determined whether stress affects the micro- and macroparasite burdens of wild chacma baboons; and used a novel method to detect elephant endotheliotropic herpes-virus type 1 in vulval swabs and trunk washes in Asian elephants. A high proportion of these projects are published in peer-review journals, which is a significant benefit to the graduates and to wild animal health science.

Recent developments

Both courses are now offered either as a certificate, diploma or the full Masters. Four modules are taken to complete a certificate and a further four modules for the diploma, while students completing the full Masters also conduct the research project.

The careers undertaken by graduates are as diverse as the project work. There are opportunities in the conservation and animal welfare fields, and graduates can take an academic route or work in government, for charities (including zoos) or in industry. A majority of graduates work in conservation in either in situ or ex situ projects. Some students go on to complete further qualifications such as a PhD, but clinical work predominates for the MScWAH graduates. Other career paths include wild animal management, rehabilitation and teaching. A recent analysis showed that 68 per cent of graduates obtain a post in wild animal health or biology.

To enrol on the MScWAH, students must have a veterinary qualification, while the MScWAB is open to students with a first degree in zoology, biological sciences or a similar degree, at 2:1 level or above. .

After graduating

Graduates of the two courses can join ‘Wild Animal Alumni’ (WAA), a global network of MScWAB and MScWAH graduates, who receive a weekly bulletin of job opportunities and a quarterly newsletter of news and updates from the RVC and ZSL.

n Further information can be found at or

Case studies

Vijitha Perera was already working as the veterinarian at the Department of Wildlife Conservation, Sri Lanka, when he took a year out to study for the MScWAH, with a particular view to building up skills to tackle the effects of tuberculosis on the elephant population in Sri Lanka. He conducted his research on the laboratory diagnosis of mycobacterial infections.

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Nic Masters had already acquired some experience with zoo veterinary work when he undertook the MScWAH course in 2004/05. He was able to improve his skills in anaesthesiology of wild animals by conducting his research project – ‘Perioperative and anaesthetic related mortality risks in great apes’ – and used these skills to good effect when he gained a post at the International Zoo Veterinary Group, working in several UK zoos after graduation.

The reasons why veterinary graduates choose these courses are as varied as the work they do. These three case studies reveal how wild animals benefit.

Nina Kanderian, a zoology graduate, had some experience working in UK zoos before she undertook the MScWAB course. She conducted her research project on the behaviour of Asiatic black bears, and found a post with Care for the Wild in Asia after graduation, and for which she oversaw projects in India, Kenya, Tanzania, Canada, Nepal, Kyrgyzstan and Russia. Nina subsequently moved to Afghanistan to work for three years with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) in its mission to improve knowledge of the fate of Afghan wildlife during the conflict. She is pictured with Government officials and WCS staff at the first ever Red Listing workshop for Afghanistan, held in Kabul in 2009.

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