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Conservation for Human and Ecological Health
Photo Credit: Tim Vickers
by Dr. Meenakshi Nagendran
Global climate change, invasive species, emerging infectious diseases… the list of ecological and human health issues that cut across global boundaries continues to grow. What does this mean for biodiversity? These stressors make the conservation of biological diversity an increasingly difficult challenge.
Protected areas around the world, including national parks and sanctuaries, are very important for absorbing and storing carbon dioxide, one of the primary global warming gases. These areas are also crucially important centers of biological diversity. Conserving biodiversity must therefore be an important part of climate change discussions at both the national and international levels. In addition to maintaining the integrity of existing protected areas, restoration of connectivity between these areas is needed to allow wildlife to migrate. This is especially important to prevent the isolation of gene pools. Populations with low genetic diversity may have a harder time attempting to adapt to climate change.
Ebola, tuberculosis, rabies, influenza (H5N1, H1N1), foot-and-mouth disease, and brucellosis are just a few diseases having a devastating impact on wildlife populations. Many of the disease-causing pathogens are highly contagious and capable of jumping among species, even between humans and wildlife. An ever increasing human population contributes to a breakdown of the human-wildlife interface, with increasing loss of wildlife habitat and very little buffer between humans and wildlife. Because of increased interaction with people and their domestic animals, wildlife populations are at greater risk from disease than in years past.
The health of wildlife and humans is inextricably connected to the health of the local environment. When the quality of the environment declines, the quality of life for those who depend upon it is diminished. For instance, the clear-cutting of tropical forests can be linked directly to malaria outbreaks. After intensive logging, water begins to pool in areas once covered by trees, while the absence of shade causes local temperatures to rise. Wildlife populations once present in the forest decrease, while Anopheles mosquitoes begin to thrive under the new wetter and warmer conditions. Sickness due to malaria then becomes all too common among local human communities.
Photo Credit: Ted Ullrich (tedullrich.com)
The good news is that the impact of diseases such as malaria can be managed, in part, through the promotion of sustainable resource use. This strategy nearly always benefits both people and wildlife. In 2007, for example, Health in Harmony, a not-for-profit organization in southwestern Borneo, began providing high-quality health care to communities around Ganung Palung National Park while reducing incidents of illegal logging around the park’s periphery. With support from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Wildlife Without Borders program, Health in Harmony gives voluntary incentives (including discounted health services and access to a mobile clinic) to those communities that protect the park from illegal logging. As a result, the quality of life has improved for both people and the orangutans of Ganung Palung.
With the emerging threats from global climate change, the need for an interdisciplinary approach like the one Health in Harmony has taken becomes even greater. Disease-causing pathogens will expand their range to areas that previously were inhospitable to their survival. Global climate change is also causing significant changes in the availability of food and water, further affecting animals and humans due to changes in their immune systems, exposing them to a greater risk of infections. In addition, increased storm activity frequently results in disease outbreaks. There are no easy solutions to these problems, but the need to address them is great.
To improve the health of people, livestock, and ecosystems, many people need to be at the table: veterinarians, doctors, public health practitioners, wildlife ecologists, restoration ecologists, land-use planners, community leaders, and policy makers. Now more than ever, there is an urgent need to take an interdisciplinary approach to problem solving.
The Wildlife Without Borders global program seeks to address this need through new partnerships and new approaches to conservation.
For information on partnership opportunities, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dr. Meenakshi Nagendran, a wildlife biologist and program officer for the Asian Elephant Conservation Fund in the FWS Division of International Conservation, can be reached at email@example.com.
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