From understanding Ebola in Central Africa to using medicinal plants in Bolivia, local communities are emerging as key partners in fighting diseases shared by humans and wildlife

WCS health officials presented findings at this week’s OIE Global Conference on Wildlife: “Animal Health and Biodiversity—Preparing for the Future”

PARIS, FRANCE (February 25, 2011)
—Wildlife health experts from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) said they are increasingly relying on the expertise of local communities in the world’s most biodiverse landscapes as they fight diseases that affect wildlife, livestock, and the human populations that rely on both.

WCS health projects with local participation were presented in talks as part of this week’s OIE Global Conference on Wildlife, “Animal Health and Biodiversity—Preparing for the Future,” held in Paris Feb. 23-25. Organized by the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) in collaboration with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO), the event addresses the benefits and challenges of coordinated management efforts to health risks occurring at the human-livestock-wildlife interface.

A key component to effective health projects in wild places entails the involvement of individuals from nearby communities, such as hunters who travel in the forests of the Republic of Congo and now work with field veterinarians and other health experts in a monitoring program for Ebola.

“Hunters are the individuals who are in the forests in regions of high Ebola risk,” said Dr. Alain Ondzie, field veterinarian for the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Global Health Program. “Their participation gives us the means to pinpoint wildlife epidemics that threaten people and wildlife.”

In a lecture to conference participants on Thursday, Ondzie presented WCS’s hunter-based surveillance program for Ebola, designed and implemented in response to outbreaks in the Republic of Congo and Gabon. Ebola is a significant risk to both western lowland gorillas and chimpanzees; during the past decade, mortality for both species due to Ebola in some areas was estimated at 90 percent. These species are listed as “Critically Endangered” and “Endangered” respectively on the World Conservation Union’s (IUCN) Red List.

WCS has been examining the impact of Ebola on wildlife as well as on people, who sometimes consume the discovered carcasses of gorillas and other wildlife, with the aim of developing mitigation strategies. The last confirmed human victims of Ebola in the area occurred in 2005, and all reported human cases have been linked to contact with infected carcasses.

Since carcasses degrade quickly in rain forest habitats, WCS health experts have enlisted hunters, logging company employees, and others to quickly locate deceased animals for the purpose of gathering fresh samples for diagnosis.

“The hunter-based surveillance system provides two benefits: the protection of great apes as well as people,” added Ondzie. “The early detection of Ebola in forests is crucial in prompting a rapid response from human health authorities to protect local communities.”

In addition to monitoring programs focused primarily on potential pandemics, other WCS health initiatives strive to identify and mitigate health threats to domestic animals as well as wildlife on which local communities depend. WCS health experts collaborate with Bolivia’s Takana communities in an integrated disease prevention program to promote the sustainable management of natural resources in the Greater Madidi-Tambopata landscape.

Dr. Marcela Uhart, Associate Director for Latin America, WCS-Global Health, outlined the joint project for conference attendants on Wednesday. WCS has worked with the Takana People’s Indigenous Council for more than 10 years in an effort to develop their capacity for sustainable management within their home territory adjacent to the Madidi protected area. The Takana are one of many indigenous groups that live in or around Bolivia's protected area network, which totals some 17 percent of the country.

Like many of Bolivia’s indigenous communities, the Takana were formerly sustained by a combination of hunting, fishing, and small scale agriculture but are now increasingly dependent on domestic animals to supplement their nutritional needs. The presence of livestock in close proximity to wildlife creates a new interface which pathogens can exploit.

WCS works to help address health issues through a “One World-One Health ™  ” model that promotes human/wildlife conflict resolution and conservation in Bolivia, a country which contains some 40 percent of the world's terrestrial biodiversity. Specifically, the program has improved animal husbandry and disease control expertise, reaching out to 12 of the 19 Takana communities in the landscape and training more than 40 health technicians—called “Animal Health Promoters”—since 2005.  WCS veterinarians have also helped to implement a surveillance network for animal diseases (holding workshops to familiarize villagers with diseases and symptoms), a record-keeping system, and on-site technical assistance for communal livestock rearing projects such as poultry and cattle.

The program has also made use of traditional knowledge to improve the health of livestock, specifically by promoting the use of local plants with medicinal qualities. For instance, WCS veterinarians have examined the effectiveness of bibosi (Ficus glabrata)—a plant used by local communities to treat gastrointestinal parasites in humans—as a means of treating  parasites in domestic pigs. Other plants have proven effective in controlling parasites in alpacas as well.

“The program has significantly improved health care for domestic animals, increased the availability of information on disease outbreaks in remote areas, and given value to the use of ancestral knowledge by encouraging the use of natural remedies,” said Uhart. “All of this contributes to the well-being of local communities.”

“The One World-One Health ™  approach to addressing the world’s most pressing health challenges provides an effective framework for collaboration among governments, health agencies, and other organizations,”   said Dr. Robert A. Cook, Executive Vice President and General Director of WCS’s Living Institutions. “Of course, a crucial component of this holistic model is the expertise of local communities to identify and possibly head off problems before they occur, and WCS has the long-term presence in these landscapes to be able to effectively engage with local communities.”

Stephen Sautner (1-718-220-3682;
John Delaney (1-718-220-3275;

The Wildlife Conservation Society saves wildlife and wild places worldwide. We do so through science, global conservation, education and the management of the world's largest system of urban wildlife parks, led by the flagship Bronx Zoo. Together these activities change attitudes towards nature and help people imagine wildlife and humans living in harmony. WCS is committed to this mission because it is essential to the integrity of life on Earth.

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