Kathleen Alexander’s multidimensional research impacts Botswana and beyond

A billboard announcing “Welcome to the Land of Giants” is the first thing that greets arriving travelers at the Kasane airport in an area of Southern Africa called the “Four Corners Region,” where Botswana, Namibia, Zambia, and Zimbabwe meet.

A small town in Northern Botswana, Kasane is the gateway to the world-famous Chobe National Park, considered to have the largest population of elephants in the world and one of the most diverse populations of wildlife in Southern Africa. The region’s 70,000 elephants outnumber people nearly four to one.

Next to the Chobe National Park is Dr. Kathleen Alexander’s CARACAL (Centre for African Resources: Animals, Communities, and Land Use) Biodiversity Center. Established in 2000, CARACAL operates through a holistic concept ahead of its time, where problems facing communities and ecosystems are engaged interdependently through multidisciplinary approaches that merge societal challenges with innovative solutions. Virginia Tech is currently revising its curriculum and research program to reflect this kind of model.

“We focus on understanding the challenges that face a community within the context of coupled natural-human systems,” Alexander iterated. “We work together with communities and governments to develop solutions that recognize the realities they face — what is feasible for them now and in the future?”


KA with owl
Kathleen Alexander who provides wildlife emergency assistance to the Botswana government, rescued this white-faced scops owl that is now part of her environmental education program for youth. She has tended to snakes, wild dogs, buffalo, cheetahs, hyenas, lions, eagles and other birds, waterbucks, water hogs, crocodiles, baboons, zebras, mongoose, aardvarks, and pangolins.

A wildlife veterinarian and professor who received Virginia Tech’s Alumni Awards for Excellence in International Outreach in 2013 and International Research in 2015, Alexander holds a Ph.D. in disease ecology and has worked across Africa. She is recognized by many international agencies for her global contributions in disease ecology, wildlife conservation, and rural development.

She joined the college’s Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation in 2007 as her first academic appointment and alternates her time between her lab in Blacksburg and her research center in Botswana. In the past 10 years, she has been awarded more than $5 million in research grants as the principal investigator from an overall total of $24 million in collaborative grants, much of which comes from the National Science Foundation.

Before they co-founded CARACAL, Alexander and her husband, Mark Vandewalle, Ph.D., a savannah ecologist, both worked for the Botswana’s Department of Wildlife and National Parks in the 1990s. Vandewalle, CEO of CARACAL, is a Botswana citizen with more than 40 years of experience in wildlife management and research.

Alexander ran the government’s Wildlife Veterinary Unit. At the time, she was the only woman occupying such a government position across Sub-Saharan Africa. She later worked as an ecological advisor to the Office of the President of Botswana and the government’s Attorney General Chambers.

At Virginia Tech, Alexander’s research has expanded exponentially. Her discoveries and activities have been game changers.

Game changer 1
In 2010, Alexander discovered a novel tuberculosis (TB) pathogen, Mycobacterium mungi, related to human TB, that infects banded mongoose in Botswana. Alexander and her team found that this TB pathogen is transmitted through mongoose social communication behavior, a ground-breaking discovery. As with many animals such as dogs and hyenas, mongoose communicate with other members of their species using urine and anal gland secretions.

Alexander and Cysko
Alexander and Cysko, a skilled wildlife tracker who worked with Alexander for nearly a decade and a half, radio-track collared mongoose as part of her disease ecology research program.

Scent marks from sick animals were found to be infected with the TB pathogen, allowing the disease to be transmitted between and within mongoose social groups when individuals sniffed or were marked with the infected secretions. “This discovery has critical implications to our current understanding of how TB and other infectious diseases can be transmitted in territorial species,” Alexander explained. “We have recently sequenced the genome of this new TB pathogen and are now beginning to investigate why this TB strain behaves so differently.” Together with work on other zoonotic pathogens such as leptospirosis, brucellosis, Rift Valley Fever, and anthrax, Alexander and her group have contributed significantly to public health strategy development for the region.

Game changer 2
Changes in environmental drivers can predict diarrheal disease outbreaks in Botswana. Alexander compiled a 30-year data set (the longest of its kind in Africa) and, with colleagues, identified significant relationships between diarrheal disease and meteorological variables, signaling increased population vulnerability to future climate change. “These relationships will allow us to start forecasting outbreaks and develop government readiness,” she said. Diarrhea is the second leading cause of death globally in children under five years of age.

Alexander’s group found that the presence of surface water significantly changed the timing of diarrheal outbreaks. Declines in water quality in the river coincided with biannual diarrheal outbreaks in children. Important spatial relationships were also identified between water quality declines and wildlife populations with limited river front access. Alexander and her team have also found high levels of antibiotic resistance even in protected areas, an increasingly urgent global problem.

Game changer 3
“Population growth, wealth creation, and increased agricultural activity have fragmented natural habitats for wild animals,” Alexander explained. “This increases human-wildlife conflict and presents a serious challenge to Botswana’s conservation initiatives as well as rural livelihoods.”

In the Chobe Enclave villages, Alexander worked with communities to develop participatory GIS maps of historical wildlife conflict events and used them to construct strategies for mitigation. This approach integrated traditional knowledge with standard scientific research, including remote sensing and modeling, and provided the basis for empowering communities to drive and develop their own solutions to conservation challenges.

Forest resources study
CARACAL’s Mpho Ramotadima (left), Mark Vandewalle, and Alexander take measurements in one of their forestry research plots to evaluate elephants’ impacts on forest resources.

Vandewalle and Alexander are leading a study on the use of forest resources by animals in the Chobe Forest Reserve. Long-term vegetation exclosures provide an opportunity to determine if elephants are primary drivers of forest degradation, a concern that occupies the political landscape. “What we are finding is no — the real threat is far more complex, involving long- and short-term climate dynamics and fire,” Vandewalle said.

Game changer 4
Alexander worked for 10 years with local chiefs and their communities to assess threats to food security and livelihoods, and identify sustainable solutions. Ecotourism, while billed as an important opportunity for local communities, may also negatively impact households when tourism developments become barriers to essential natural resources.

KA with local leaders
Kathleen Alexander, wearing the local sarong skirt wrap as is customary for women, regularly visits the local chiefs to seek guidance and direction on community projects. Here, she and CARACAL research assistant Mpho Ramotadima (left) go over a land use management plan with Kogsi Mwezi, a community chief.

Alexander initiated a community-led mapping exercise in which critical natural resources were identified in the landscape and mapped by communities together with their management strategies. She presented these maps to the chiefs in order to empower traditional leadership to drive the land-planning process in their areas and ensure sustainable livelihoods were obtained. Nothing like this had ever been done before.

Game changer 5
Fundamentally, it’s all about education. At Virginia Tech, Alexander, who is affiliated with the Fralin Life Science Institute, has taken outreach to a new level. Initiating the African Co-Mentoring Framework funded by the National Science Foundation, Alexander focuses on developing opportunities for young African Americans to be leaders and to mentor others in a global setting.

AfAmer Comentor program
Michelle Wright (left) and Madalyn Fox are two of the four minority undergraduate students working in Alexander’s lab under her African American co-mentoring program funded by the National Science Foundation. In addition to lab work, they are engaged with minority tribal groups in Alexander’s field site.

Under this program, Virginia Tech African American graduate students and undergraduates work with minority high school students and Botswana minority tribal youth at Alexander’s field site. “When you have knowledge and skills that are valued by someone else, you become a leader and have an opportunity to see your own worth and capability,” Alexander commented. “We need to transform the educational process and allow confidence to be built alongside knowledge if we are going to realize true diversity in the sciences.”

Alexander has also initiated the VT/CARACAL Community Environmental Educators Program, operated in collaboration with the Botswana government. Unemployed youth across nine villages are hired by Alexander as environmental education interns to work in their community’s primary school. They are trained on the delivery of curricula developed in conjunction with her public health and environmental research. The program will reach more than 1,000 children weekly when fully operational.

KA with bushbaby
This bush baby, one of the smallest primates, is CARACAL’s favorite educational ambassador.

Innovation in education and conservation is further seen in the Wildlife Ambassadors Program launched by Alexander this year in the Chobe region. Through an essay competition, each school in her study site has selected students who will act as the year’s advocate for wildlife and the environment in their school. “We can create a new culture of conservation by allowing young children to have power and a leadership role in environmental advocacy. They will be the decision makers of the future,” she said.

CARACAL has been visited by U.S. and French ambassadors to Botswana, among other dignitaries, and hosts more than 3,000 school children annually to teach them about the environment. Rescued, injured, or orphaned wildlife are given a home at the center and contribute to the educational mission. Most Botswana people are fearful of wildlife, but VT/CARACAL educators, together with the center’s wildlife collection, provide an opportunity for local children to develop a culture of understanding.

These efforts are complemented by other programs, including the development of a craft center for impoverished women and training programs for government officials managing natural resources. Alexander uses the center as a location where vulnerable sectors of society, such as sex workers, can meet anonymously and self organize. “These young women often face great discrimination and, in some cases, even physical abuse,” she stressed.

Game changer 6
Because of her background in promoting environmental sustainability, Alexander and her group are collaborating with Kim Roques, director of All Out Africa, a citizen science project based in Tofu, Mozambique, focused on marine research and conservation, including species such as whale sharks and manta rays.

Alexander, who was a marine mammal behaviorist at Sea World in the 1980s, is helping to lead the research program directed at understanding the coupled dynamics of marine system health and rural livelihoods in Mozambique. “This program provides a unique opportunity for Virginia Tech students and others to immerse themselves in marine research, exploring the connections between the natural marine environment and human communities,” she said. Under Alexander’s direction, a Virginia Tech winter break course in tropical marine ecology is in development for 2018 that will take undergraduate students to Mozambique. They will scuba dive along the country’s tropical reefs to collect and later analyze data on system health, giving them a unique experience in global education.

KA diving
Alexander scuba dives to gather information on coral reefs and whale sharks — the world’s largest fish and an indicator species of system health — as part of a collaborative long-term study off the coast of Mozambique to monitor the health of the coral reef system and evaluate how the livelihoods of communities in the region are linked to the marine resources.

Game changer 7

Based on her experience in forensics and law enforcement, which began when she worked for the Botswana government, Alexander is now assisting the government’s Ministry of Environment, Natural Resources Conservation, and Tourism with the development of molecular wildlife forensic capabilities. Because the illegal trade in wildlife is escalating, remote areas are at greater risk. This partnership is directed at improving the government’s ability to identify wildlife products when they are confiscated.

“Bushmeat is often deboned and the skin is removed, making it impossible to prove the confiscated material is wildlife in origin and to make an arrest,” Alexander explained. “We help the government use molecular forensics tools in remote regions to fight the illegal trade in wildlife species.” This significant game changer “will strengthen Botswana’s effort to protect wildlife and stop profitable organized crime syndicates from gaining a foothold in the country.”

In sum, Alexander’s work recognizes and addresses the three major issues that confront Africa: poverty, conflicts with wildlife, and health. Through all the complexity and inter-connectedness, she hopes to empower the local communities and provide tools that will allow them to develop sustainable rural livelihoods and healthy natural systems.

Mabele school children
Alexander joins school children from the village of Mabele. To her right (right to left in the photo) are Kgosi Ramsden, CARACAL education coordinator; Mma Nkwalale, principal education officer for Chobe; and the Mabele Primary School principal. Watch short videos of students from several primary schools honoring her education efforts with their sweet voices.