Reaching out

The human health message can help engage new partners for wildlife conservation, says William B. Karesh.

Reaching out

With mad cow disease, monkey pox, Ebola and Avian influenza now household words, it is clear that the health of wildlife, people and domestic animals is inextricably linked. The exponential growth in human and livestock populations, rapid urbanization, intensive agriculture and the massive global trade in animals is increasing the spread of infectious diseases that emerge from contact between animals, humans and the ecosystems in which they live.

One of our challenges as conservationists is to think of innovative ways to engage new constituencies in achieving our goals. We need to find an alignment with other groups by identifying some shared concerns and we're finding that using the human health message is an effective way of doing so.

Millions of kilogrammes of bush meat are consumed each year in Central and West Africa, threatening many species including great apes. We need to change the situation by engaging the people who depend on wild animals for food for their families. By taking health as an entry point, we're finding that local people often share the same goals as conservationists: they want to feel safe, protect the health of their families and their livestock, and secure their natural resources into the future.

Ebola hemorrhagic fever, one of the most virulent diseases known, can be traced back to great ape mortality and the handling of other infected animals. In Central and West Africa, people hunt and unknowingly bring sick animals back to their village where the disease then spreads. Human monkey pox also occurs in the remote villages of this region close to tropical rainforests where there is more frequent contact with infected animals.

We need to better understand the health of primates as so many infectious diseases can be transferred from them. Capacity building and community education is critical. We can train local people to monitor primate health and carry out a disease investigation so that they can start to take care of their natural resources. The laboratories used to do this can also be used to diagnose and treat people in remote areas. Disease in wildlife can then be detected early on and serve as a warning to prevent its spread to people. This approach is proving sustainable because with limited resources local people can take 'ownership' of the activities. Conservationists or health professionals can pass on their skills and move on to build capacity in other areas in need.

We're also trying to offer alternatives to consuming wildlife by providing domestic animals as sources of protein to villages. But this presents another set of challenges: domestic animals also bring disease. All over the world, wildlife populations have been infected by diseases brought in by domestic animals transported during human colonization, including rinderpest, foot and mouth disease and tuberculosis. Livestock disease continues to this day to be a tremendous threat to wildlife.

In the Congo basin, where cattle are being imported, we have to avoid the mistakes of the past. It's like opening Pandora's box: once a disease like brucellosis or tuberculosis is let loose into the wild, it is very difficult to control. We need to establish surveillance systems to monitor the cattle being brought in and work with local doctors, nurses and abattoir staff to show how human and livestock health are connected. In some areas, nurses are taking samples from abattoirs to test for TB in cattle.

Many of our high profile diseases are driven by human behaviour. SARS-Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome which originated in China is the result of mixing together lots of species from different places.
When you move animals around in wildlife trade markets, you mix and match millions of bacteria and viruses. A recent study revealed that in Phnom Penh, over a period of 10 months, 800,000 birds moved through just two markets. These were forest birds and grassland birds mixing with people, cats, dogs, chickens and rabbits. And then we're surprised when we get hit with a 'new' disease. To me, the only surprise is that we're surprised! Wild species didn't evolve to live like this, in close proximity with people and domestic animals. So as we move wildlife and domestic animals around the world in vast numbers, you can understand how new diseases, or new reactions to old diseases emerge. It's a recipe for disaster.

And this dangerous situation is only driven by the demand for food. With demand for protein likely to triple in the coming years, we need to bring new partners, particularly food producers and the agricultural sector into the conservation fold and show that we have common goals. Just like us, they need a safe environment and healthy products.

With Avian influenza we have done this by establishing a coalition, the Global Avian Influenza Network for Surveillance (GAINS) which spans 36 countries and involves wildlife veterinarians, centres of disease control, public health workers, the food and agriculture industry and conservation organizations. In the wild, the vast majority of strains of Avian influenza do not cause serious disease. The highly pathogenic version of Avian influenza is a product of poorly managed intensive poultry farming.

GAINS aims to improve our understanding of how the influenza viruses transmit in wild birds, and to disseminate information to governments, international organizations, the private sector and the general public. It provides a warning system for the global spread of the highly pathogenic strains that threaten domestic poultry, human health and biodiversity, particularly avian. Amateur bird watchers are also contributing and we're making all the data publicly available. The aim is to expand GAINS to a worldwide network that monitors wildlife and livestock health.

Human health issues are not the remit of already over-stretched conservationists. That's why the environmental community needs to engage with the medical community. This creates a powerful force for conservation as both groups have significant resources and extensive professional networks. It's a huge opportunity and one that is finally being tapped. Partnerships, like our One World - One Health™ initiative, are essential for progress; working towards shared goals and forming more effective policies that address the health connections between people and animals.

Dr William B. Karesh is Vice President of Global Health Programs at the Wildlife Conservation Society and co-chair of IUCN's Wildlife Health Specialist Group.

Wildlife Conservation Society

IUCN Wildlife Health Specialist Group

Go to top