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Launch of New Wildlife Health Unit in Sabah

30 May 2014

Photo of Kinabatangan
 Kinabatangan (fragmented) landscape

Sabah's first Bio-security 2 (BSL2) Wildlife Health, Genetic and Forensic laboratory is a recent joint initiative between Sabah Wildlife Department (SWD), EcoHealth Alliance (EHA) and Danau Girang Field Centre (DGFC, managed by Cardiff University). The opening of the laboratory was officiated by US Ambassador to Malaysia HE Ambassador Joseph Yun in December 2013. With funding provided by EHA and the USAID Emerging Pandemic Threats (EPT) Program, SWD and DGFC, the three institutions have established a state-of-the-art facility, which will enable wildlife health monitoring. The facility will in return benefit conservation and land use planning for a better management of Sabah’s landscape; both agricultural and forest.

This new development builds upon the impacts achieved via the University’s long-standing collaboration with SWD, under which the DGFC in Lot 6 of the Lower Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary was established. Research undertaken at DGFC focuses on studying the effects of land-use on the viability of threatened species such as the Orang Utan, Bornean elephant, Sunda clouded leopard and Malayan Sun Bear.  As a result the DGFC (managed by Dr Benoit Goossens, School of Biosciences) has played a pivotal role in the development and adoption of habitat management plans for both the Orang Utan and Bornean Elephant by the Malaysian Government.

The Bio-security 2 initiative started two years ago, when EcoHealth Alliance approached the Sabah Wildlife Department to collaborate on their Deep Forest project, which was developed on the assumption that the greater the biodiversity that occurs in a given area, the greater the diversity of pathogens should also occur. As long as these areas of high biodiversity remain preserved in their natural state and free of human encroachment, then people are at low risk of emerging infectious disease. EHA scientists began to test this theory in the forests of Manaus, Brazil, and Borneo, Malaysia. In Borneo, EHA collaborates with SWD and DGFC and we have begun to sample species (rodents, bats and primates) for pathogens along a deforestation gradient, looking at areas with no deforestation, intermediate deforestation and areas where once pristine forests have been completely removed.

Photo of proboscis monkey
 Collaring of a proboscis monkey male in the Kinabatangan

Within the Deep Forest project, SWD, EHA and DGFC set up a Wildlife Health Unit, responsible for leading the physical and diagnostic evaluation of rescued and relocated wildlife across the state as well as conducting sampling trips to trap and sample free ranging wildlife and assess wildlife health in protected and unprotected areas.
Since its opening, the BSL2 has been used for the Deep Forest project as well as for the Monkeybar project, led by SWD and DGFC, in collaboration with the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine: "Defining the biomedical, environmental and social risk factors for human infection with Plasmodium knowlesi: opportunities for prevention and control of an emerging zoonotic infection". We are using the laboratory for molecular detection of P. knowlesi and other primate malarias using faecal samples from long-tailed macaques.

 Cardiff University PhD student and veterinarian, Senthilvel Nathan, is also using the laboratory to carry out genetic studies on the proboscis monkey. This work is funded by the Sime Darby Foundation, which granted 1.5 M RM to DGFC. Finally, Luke Evans, Cardiff University PhD student based at DGFC and working on the estuarine crocodile, will use the laboratory to carry out some population genetic work on the species.