Baker Institute for Animal Health


Conserving wildlife by fighting poverty and hunger

Alexander J. Travis, VMD, Ph.D.
Baker Institute for Animal Health
235 Hungerford Hill Road
Ithaca, NY 14853

Phone: (607) 256-5613
Fax: 607-256-5608

Our work in assisted reproduction is particularly useful in managing captive populations of wild animal species. These species are often listed as threatened or endangered, and are at high risk of extinction. As a complement to this relatively small scale work, we also work to achieve conservation at a landscape scale, which can help preserve entire, functioning ecosystems and all the species within them. Because all landscapes on earth are influenced by people, and because human activities are typically responsible for loss of habitat and wildlife, it is critical that conservation activities in the field have a strong focus on people.

Since 2005, we have partnered with COMACO (Community Markets for Conservation), in the Luangwa Valley of Zambia. This area is well known for its wildlife but faces significant pressures from poaching and deforestation as a result of persistent poverty and hunger. COMACO is a Zambian-owned cooperative business that seeks to work on a “triple bottom line,” meeting social, economic and environmental objectives. They train farmers in sustainable agricultural practices that improve yields and limit the need to clear new land. Household incomes are raised by adding value to farm products (such as cooperatively making peanut butter or polished rice as opposed to farmers trying to sell small amounts of farm products individually.

I was the principal investigator on a grant from USAID that enabled us to harness the great breadth and depth of Cornell’s expertise in soil and crop sciences, food science, business and natural resource economics, social science and veterinary medicine. We provided COMACO with both technical consulting as well as research that helped test the efficacy of a number of their interventions (Barrett et al., 2011; Lewis et al., 2011.)

As a veterinarian, one of my main interests has been in household poultry production. In the Valley, there are no cattle due to trypanosomiasis. Almost every household raises backyard chickens. Yet primarily because of Newcastle Disease Virus, the vast majority of birds died before sale or safe consumption, providing little value to the farmers and leaving them without animal-based sources of food other than bushmeat. Our veterinary and graduate students have helped COMACO implement a highly successful community vaccination program for Newcastle Disease that tripled and stabilized household flock sizes. Interestingly, we found that almost none of these birds were eaten; rather, once families could depend on their birds staying alive, they preferred to sell them and use the money for purposes such as sending their children to school.

Because of high rates of hunger that cause 50% of children in the area to be stunted, we are working with COMACO to improve maternal and child nutrition and development. Animal source foods offer much more than protein and calories—they also provide critical micronutrients that have been shown to improve child physical, immune and cognitive development. Given the success of the poultry program, we expanded that in a pilot study to test the effectiveness of small-scale egg layer facilities. Early results are quite promising both in terms of increased consumption of eggs in those villages having a facility, and increased incomes for the members of the cooperatives who run them. We are now beginning a large research study involving scaling up this activity and testing the effects on maternal and child nutrition, health and development.