Conservation Medicine: The Human-Wildlife-Ecosystem Connection

Heather W. Barron, DVM, DABVP

Hospital Director, CROW 

The increasing convergence of people, animals, and our environment has created a new dynamic in which the health of each group is inextricably interconnected. The study of this combined health is known as conservation medicine and it calls for the collaborative efforts of multiple disciplines working locally, nationally, and globally to attain optimal health for all.

The need for veterinary expertise to address wildlife health and ecosystem dysfunction is exemplified by the accelerating declines and unprecedented extinctions of animal

species, the growing incidence of wildlife and zoonotic (i.e. spreads from animals to people) diseases, and the impacts of environmental contaminants such as mercury, toxins from harmful algal blooms, endocrine disruptors, and carcinogens. These hazards directly affect human and animal health in a myriad of ways.

In the wildlife sector, veterinarians are increasingly confronted with the consequences of environmental contaminants and infectious disease outbreaks that potentially threaten wild and domesticated animals as well as humans. Because of the breadth of regions, species, and problems involved in the currently accelerating “sixth extinction”, there is a growing concern that the world's latest generation could be the first in history to experience a reduction in life expectancy and health in general. A broader understanding of health and disease demands a unity of approach achievable only through a consilience of human, domestic animal and wildlife health- better known as the One World/One Health approach.

Aside from their intrinsic value, wildlife can be important as sentinel species for both the health of the environment and people. Of the 1,461 diseases now recognized in humans, approximately 60% are due to multi-host pathogens characterized by their movement across species lines. And, over the last three decades, approximately 75% of new emerging human infectious diseases have been zoonotic. As long as someone is monitoring wildlife health, this can serve as an early-warning system to protect people.  

Furthermore, the number of Americans whose lives include a focus on wildlife and the amount of private sector expenditures related to wildlife are remarkable. According to a report from the Fish and Wildlife Service, in 2006 more than 87 million Americans enjoyed some form of wildlife-related recreation and, in pursuit of these activities, spent $122 billion, about 1% of the U.S. gross domestic product (GDP). So, a number of compelling arguments can be made for supporting the health of the Earth and all that inhabit her.

What can you do to help stem the rising tide of ecosystem dysfunction and extinction of wildlife? Support conservation initiatives, become educated about wildlife, follow research that supports wildlife health, and be aware that the growing field of conservation medicine is all about programs, like the one we have at CROW, protecting the health of you, your pets, your food supply, and your environment. Visit CROW’s Education Center at 3883 Sanibel Captiva Road on Sanibel to learn more about conservation medicine and what we can all do to make the world a better place; or at least our little wild corner of it.