"In the conservation and development communities, people working on health are often isolated from their counterparts addressing environmental issues," said Dr. Steve Osofsky, senior policy adviser for wildlife health at the Wildlife Conservation Society, based at the Bronx Zoo in New York.
The Wildlife Conservation Society was the catalyst behind a new initiative that calls for a more holistic approach to health and conservation challenges—a paradigm to solve problems that can benefit from integrative thinking among sectors that have, all too often, worked only in parallel. The WCS Animal Health for the Environment And Development initiative addresses the nexus of wildlife, domestic animal, and human health—fostering an ecosystem approach. The WCS Field Veterinary Program, the Veterinary Specialist Group of the World Conservation Union, and a diverse consortium of partner organizations launched AHEAD at the World Conservation Union's World Parks Congress last September in Durban, South Africa.
"Related disciplines are working on parallel tracks," Dr. Osofsky explained. "We need to make sure that these tracks meet, and I think AHEAD will provide a much-needed forum for exchanging ideas and building partnerships to solve health and conservation problems."
AHEAD partners work to combat introduced and emerging diseases as well as their effects on conservation and human livelihoods. Capturing "lessons learned" that can be shared among colleagues in various parts of the world is essential. The regions selected for AHEAD focus clearly need more than additional basic research or improvements in the standards of veterinary or public health practice, according to Dr. Osofsky. They need an integrative approach, a fundamental examination of the intersection of government policies and land-use practices, and a nonpartisan look at the ecologic dimensions of the disease issues their animals and people face.
Prioritized research is an important component of what the AHEAD partners hope to catalyze, but they also see the intrinsic value of bringing together various constituencies to solve real-world problems, using local knowledge and international experience to their greatest advantage.
Nearly 80 veterinarians, ecologists, economists, wildlife managers, agriculturalists, pastoralists, and other experts from 10 nations in southern and East Africa were part of the interactive forum at the September congress. They developed multidisciplinary project ideas to address critical field- and policy-related needs, ideas that are now being implemented in several regions.
In a broader context, the impact of diseases on areas essential for wildlife is now being formally recognized as an important component of landscape-level conservation planning and management. For the first time in its 40-year history, the World Parks Congress included "Disease and Protected Area Management" as a key emerging issue in its official emerging issues documentation (www.iucn.org/themes/wcpa/wpc2003/english/outputs/durban/eissues.htm#3).
"We'd like to see more U.S. veterinarians getting involved in initiatives like this. It begins with creating broader awareness within the profession about how conservation programs are recognizing the need to incorporate animal health considerations into their plans," Dr. Osofsky said.
"One basic way to contribute is by educating clients through conversations about the myriad interrelationships between human and animal health—and the health of our global environment."
For more information about AHEAD and the places and organizations involved, including videos of all presentations from the World Parks Congress launch, visit www.wcs-ahead.org as well as the Wildlife Conservation Society's Field Veterinary Program at www.fieldvet.org.