Closing the circle – from research to reality

Many years ago in another life, in another career, I became passionate about ethnoveterinary medicine (EVM). This arcane subject, also known as traditional veterinary knowledge, received my undivided attention for a number of years. I first learnt about this area of indigenous knowledge from Professor Denis Fielding of Edinburgh University’s Centre for Tropical Veterinary Medicine where I was studying for my Masters in Tropical Animal Production and Health. It appeared that in every culture, in every civilisation the world over where animals were being raised for meat, milk and fibre, people had discovered plants with medicinal properties to treat a multitude of livestock ailments. From Scotland to Sudan, from Switzerland to Surinam, from Somalia to Sumatra, farmers had undergone a convergent evolution of knowledge of which plants to pick, how to prepare them and administer them to relieve parasites of all kinds, mastitis, bloat and many other afflictions of cattle, horses, donkeys, sheep, goats, pigs, and poultry. This traditional knowledge was precarious already in the 1990s as young people didn’t want to learn the old ways and preferred to purchase modern veterinary medicines, which of course made sense at the time. Allopathic medicine having been tested in clinical trials and proved to be efficient for clearing parasites and diseases rapidly. I felt a strong sense of urgency to catalogue these dying traditions.

After researching my masters’ dissertation on this subject in Nigeria among the Fulani pastoralists, I sought out the world’s foremost researchers in EVM: Dr Constance McCorkle and Dr Evelyn Mathias-Mundy and resolved to impose myself on them. They had already spent 10 years cataloguing EVM and had produced a number of publications on the subject. I spent the next 4 years working on an annotated bibliography of ethnoveterinary medicine. It was a labour of love, I became the lead author, supported by my formidable gurus and together we put together the most comprehensive database (on paper) existing at that time in this field, cataloguing every last remnant of knowledge around the world[1]. The internet and email were still rudimentary, connections were slow, and often documents would come by post, with exotic stamps, and handwritten notes from lone researchers in Tanzania or Peru or Indonesia.

Finally the volume was published in 2001, supported by DFID, and I moved on to researching new subjects: the brave world of corporate social responsibility. I would think about ethnoveterinary medicine sporadically over the next 13 years until a former colleague from those days Dr Katrien van’t Hooft should cross my path again and point out to me that EVM was coming into its own. All those veterinary medicines that had eventually become more available to rural communities and more affordable, were starting to have a serious downside. Their overuse was causing multi-resistant micro-organisms, and there was a need for alternatives…Cue, ethnoveterinary medicine, all that cataloguing is finally coming into its own, as NGOs, farmers and vets are coming together to relearn the old ways to find solutions to diseases that can no longer be treated with modern drugs.

As a young graduate I always hoped that those hours spent typing bizarre recipes for worm medicines on IBM MS-DOS would be useful for someone someday. Now as a Professor of Corporate Social Responsibility, I see how this has happened. Regulations around the sale of veterinary drugs either slackened in some countries or were ignored, to allow for vast quantities of drugs to be sold to farmers with little understanding of their strength and impact. In the short term, farmers have benefited from higher yielding animals (more milk, more meat, more eggs), in the long term they are providing consumers contaminated animal products (high levels of antibiotics), and ending up with multi-resistant strains of micro-organisms from over-use of the drugs. What role did the veterinary drug companies have to play? What role did government have in allowing the sale and distribution of these drugs? What role do the farmers have? And the consumers?

To be discussed!

[1] Martin, M., Mathias, E., & McCorkle, C. M. 2001, Ethnoveterinary Medicine: An Annotated Bibliography of Community Animal Healthcare ITDG Publishing, London.

Dr. Marina Curran, Professor at BSL


1 thought on “Closing the circle – from research to reality

  1. Indeed, closing the circle; what goes around, comes around.
    Interesting article! You must be satisfied to know your efforts may have saved some of these old remedies for being forgotten.

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