BEVA Trust volunteers play a vital role in providing care and education to support equine welfare in the Gambia | British Equine Veterinary Association
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BEVA Trust volunteers play a vital role in providing care and education to support equine welfare in the Gambia

Volunteer stories
28 Feb 2024 BEVA

In December 2023 BEVA Trust volunteers Annalisa Barrelet and Hamish Leslie spent two weeks working alonside the team at Gambia Horse and Donkey Trust. Annalisa tells us about thier trip. 


Last December, loaded up with suitcases full of donated bandaging materials and headcollars, Hamish Leslie from Cambridge University Vet school and I travelled to the Gambia Horse and Donkey Trust (GHDT), to spend two weeks volunteering. Our trip was kindly sponsored by BEVA Trust.

Our stay began at the main centre in Makasutu, located in the west of the country in forest near tributaries of the river Gambia.  The Gambian rural population relies heavily on working equids, particularly donkeys, for traction, with a healthy working donkey estimated to improve family income by up to 500%.


The GHDT, a UK charity, is directed by Heather Armstrong in the UK and currently managed day-to-day by two highly experienced veterinary nurses Emily and Eva. There is no vet school in the Gambia, and the most senior of the local staff hold qualifications as veterinary technicians, and demonstrate a high degree of competence in handling the day-to-day caseloads.  There were opportunities for informal training sessions with the staff and when a donkey was put to sleep they were keen to have practical sessions on suturing methods and catheter placement.

During the initial week, we assisted in treating current in-patients at Makasutu before embarking on two outreach clinics or 'treks' to local livestock markets.  These outreach days involved health checks, tooth rasping, foot trimming, and treating harness sores. Additionally, we addressed various cases brought to us, numerous eye problems, severely overgrown hooves, and extreme poor body condition.  Donkeys are commonly driven without a bridle, using a rope tied around the mandible. We were happy to exchange donated headcollars and bits for this arrangement, bringing relief to the animals. Where cases were extreme, we arranged for them to be brought into the clinic for surgery, intensive treatment and rest. Transport involved travelling in the back of the transit van together with us! 


Trypanosomiasis and Piroplasmosis are commonly encountered and presumptive diagnosis was made based on signs of weakness, anaemia, and general malaise. One of our out-reach clinics was set up outside the public 'dump,' where donkeys are used to pull carts loaded up with rubbish. The dump charges per entry so there is a tendency to overload the carts. Many of these donkeys, not privately owned, are rented out daily, creating a detachment between the handler and the donkey. We addressed issues such as harness, bit and beating sores, providing remedial treatment, but often resting the donkey whilst it recovers is not an option.


A gratifying moment occurred when, we were called to the local police station, to meet 'animal advocates' who had confiscated donkeys from young handlers for abuse. The police took the matter seriously, sending the donkeys to the GDHT Makisutu center for treatment, while the boys were ordered to attend education before regaining custody. This development in a country with only fledgling animal welfare laws was encouraging, highlighting progress in GHDT's efforts to build bridges between the police, animal-advocates, and dump officials. 


The GDHT does not turn away any cases in need, and this has resulted in a busy small animal case load. Currently there is a full time small animal vet working,  enabling neutering and more complex cases to be treated.  There were several interesting cases which we do not commonly encounter in the UK, such as rabies, tetanus, and trypanosomiasis but one of the most prevalent issues involves horrific maggot wounds, with new cases emerging daily.  Many necrotic wounds become infested with maggots, but an emerging problem seems to be flies lay eggs in small wounds typically on the pinna, and the maggots invade through the healthy tissues over the ear and head. From sheep keeping experiences, I am familiar with flystrike prevention, and am keen to see if we can find a preventative treatment for these dogs.


Moving up-country to the Sambel Kunda centre, a four-hour journey up river on surprisingly good roads, we immersed ourselves in the rural countryside. Poverty is extreme in the rural areas, but the people are full of smiles and the children are excited to see white faces, shouting “Toubab, Toubab”.  This apparently comes from days gone by where they would shout ‘Two bob’ at white passersby and hope to be showered with coins!

Sambel Kunda, the original center, exudes a simple charm, the accommodation has no electricity and for most of the day, no running water either. We experienced the slower pace of rural life, and consulted on some cases which were almost hopeless, but there is a great reluctance for euthanasia due to religious beliefs. An outreach clinic to a market showcased the dependence on animals in these areas but also a more engaged owner-animal relationship.


It was not all work, we enjoyed a sunset boat trip to the River Gambia national park where we saw some of the resident chimpanzees in trees at the river edge. The park consists of 3 colonies of chimps on separate islands and no human entry is permitted.  We enjoyed seeing the abundant bird life, river hippos, and crocodiles.


Returning to Makisutu felt like a homecoming, catching up with staff, seeing the progress of the cases we left, and encountering new ones.

I was sad to leave The Gambia, and very much hope to visit again.  I would like to thank Rossdales and their suppliers IMS and F&S Animal Health for the very generous donations of bandaging materials and other supplies, and whole heartedly to thank BEVA Trust for this incredible experience. I highly recommend other members to apply when another opportunity comes up!