Bug off: A new way to ward off tsetse

A cow wears the anti-tsetse device around its neck. Photo by: International Center of Insect Physiology and Ecology

Tsetse flies are menacing insects. They cause a potentially fatal disease in humans and animals, on top of at least $6 billion in annual losses to the cattle industry in Africa, where the critters are endemic.

Treatment for trypanosomiasis is available, but as the saying goes, prevention is better than cure. Existing control mechanisms include a technique to sterilize male tsetse flies through low-dose radiation before they are released into the wild, and traps made of cloth that attracts the flies.

Now add the tsetse repellent collar to the list.

The collar is the brainchild of the International Center of Insect Physiology and Ecology. The organization is credited for developing a low-cost fly trap that can virtually eradicate tsetse populations in a particular area, but the method, researchers concede, may not be ideal for use among pastoralists like the Maasai in Kenya and Tanzania.

“For them, a mobile technology would better suit their lifestyle. This meant that any technology would have to be on the animal itself,” Rajinder Saini, principal scientist and coordinator of the European Union-funded Tsetse Repellent Project, told Devex.

The device contains slowly dispensing repellents with compounds sourced from urine of wild animals present in tsetse-infested areas that the flies do not like feeding upon, such as zebra or waterbuck. It is tied around the neck of cattle.

Saini and his colleagues began carrying out trials in August 2009 in Kenya — and the results are impressive: Not only was there a reduction in animal mortality (45 percent) and disease and drug incidence (both 86 percent), herders at the project sites sold twice as much livestock as they did from unprotected areas. The selling price of bulls in protected areas also went up 26 percent.

According to Saini, the demand for the collar is “very high,” and livestock keepers prefer it over other control methods because of its simplicity and mobility, aside from the positive economic impact.

Saini’s team is now looking at improving the technology and testing the collar on other animals. ICIPE has received requests to develop a similar device for camels, an increasingly important source of milk in the continent’s arid and semiarid areas such as the Horn of Africa.

The technology may as well be used on humans.

Saini said: “We can put a similar device outside the dwelling of a farmer in a human sleeping sickness area. We could also develop a dispenser to put on the belt of man. Similarly, we could put a device on the tourist vans — a request we already have received — to protect tourists going to tsetse-infested game parks like the Mara or Serengeti.”

Moving forward with those plans, he acknowledged, hinges on further support, financial and otherwise. Public-private partnerships would be needed, particularly to convert the prototype dispenser into commercial products that are nonmetallic, longer-lasting and easy to use by livestock keepers, Saini said, “as further refinement is beyond the scope of our laboratories.” Such a partnership may also enable the distribution of the device at very low-cost, if not for free.

“Of course we are requesting the aid community to fund the rollout of the technology and its further optimization,” Saini told Devex. “So far, we have only successfully shown the proof of concept. The repellent technology is also a good example of how research and technological innovations can combat food insecurity by delivery of international public goods.”

Read our previous #innov8aid.

About the author

  • Eliza Villarino

    Eliza Villarino currently manages one of today’s leading publications on humanitarian aid, global health and international development, the weekly GDB. At Devex, she has helped grow a global newsroom, with talented journalists from major development hubs such as Washington, D.C, London and Brussels. She regularly writes about innovations in global development.

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