Exploring Bhutanese Livestock & Livelihoods to achieve Sustainable Systems

Hello reader, Greetings from down under!

My name is Juan Pablo, and I am a research fellow in One Health at the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity in Victoria, Australia. In this blog post, I will tell you a bit of my (short) academic trajectory and about BLLiSS – Exploring Bhutanese Livestock & Livelihoods to achieve Sustainable Systems – the project I will run as a Soulsby fellow.

So, what do I do? – Most of the time, I do epidemiologic research around emerging issues of animals and humans with a focus on global health. My tasks have been diverse: I research clinical presentations and prescription to livestock in Bhutan, I’ve done some work on African Swine Fever in Vietnam, and now COVID-19 in Australia. I am also working on developing a One Health boardgame (yes, a boardgame). I do research in collaboration with other Peter Doherty Institute’s members as well as with fellows from the Veterinary School and the Nossal Institute at the University of Melbourne. I also co-coordinate two One Health subjects at the University of Melbourne called “Our Planet, Our Health” I and II, which introduce undergrads to the One Health research framework.

Before living in Australia, I spent my life in Chile, where I trained as a veterinarian. My interest in One Health was triggered by summers working as a volunteer with smallholders in the south of Chile. There I learned that animal’s health is the cornerstone not only for their own welfare but for the wellbeing of people who depend on them. I also learned that the collective wellbeing of animals and people usually results in other positive social and environmental outcomes. At some point in 2010, I realized that epidemiology was the best way to channel my One Health interests. I did a diploma in veterinary epidemiology, and some years later, I enrolled in a master of epidemiology with the school of population and Global Health at the University of Melbourne. I followed with a PhD that studied avian influenza in village chicken systems in Indonesia.

Now, what is BLLiSS? – well, when I joined the Peter Doherty Institute, I engaged in collaboration with the veterinary service of Bhutan. BLLiSS is an idea that was born in my fieldwork, when I met milk producers in a region called Haa. Towards the end of 2019 in Australia, the idea became BLLiSS after polishing it in conversations with a colleague.

To understand the focus of BLLiSS, I must tell you about the sentiment for animals in Bhutan. The country is a small nation – less than 1 million people and roughly the size of Switzerland – landlocked in the Himalayas range. In Bhutan Buddhism is widely practised and is associated with a strong compassion sentiment for animals that disallows their culling for consumption or health. In Bhutan, all animals – with a known owner or otherwise – receive free veterinary care until they die of natural causes.

In my fieldwork, I realized the importance of cattle. No culling means that milk, cheese, and butter are the main animal-sourced products in Bhutan. Although there has been some success with the establishment of milk cooperatives, many herds suffer from limited access to fodder and pasture. These limitations encourage forest overgrazing that damages natural ecosystems. Also, the veterinary records kept in Bhutan suggest that these long-lived animals suffer from many health issues, and some records suggest a high prevalence of zoonotic diseases in the region. Understanding the practices and level of zoonosis awareness among farmers seems essential to consolidate a milk value chain that supports the health and wellbeing of stock, farmers, consumers, and the environment.

Thus, with the support of the Soulsby Foundation, I will investigate the milk production systems in Haa and the context in which these are embedded, to gain insight into animal husbandry, health challenges of animals and people, food safety practices, and zoonosis awareness among livestock owners. With this pilot research, I expect to provide a better understanding of the components of the milk value chain, improving animal health, food, and economic security. I also want to help to identify leverage points that lead to a long-term sustainable improvement of these systems. I also expect to provide evidence of existing associations (if any) between health afflictions of animals and people. BLLiSS is a systems One Health:  a proactive research framework that focuses on the system rather than the pathogen, to achieve the simultaneous wellbeing of animals, people, and the environment. Because collaboration is an essential part of my journey, I hope that BLLiSS will bring together old and new collaborators from Bhutan, The University of Melbourne, The Peter Doherty Institute and from other parts of the world.

Juan Pablo