Conserving habitats, ecosystems everywhere key to saving wildlife

Veterinarians involved in conservation at organizations such as zoological institutions, governmental agencies
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The romantic vision of habitat and ecosystem conservation is rather different from the reality.

People picture wildlife living in pristine places, far away and far from humans. The reality is that wild animals live everywhere, sharing the environment with humans and other animals.

"I think there's been a big realization across conservation that we can save these animals—we have the science, we have the abilities to breed them—but if we don't have a place in the wild to put them back into, it's all for naught," said Dr. Mike Adkesson, president of the American Association of Zoo Veterinarians. "So a lot of the conservation focus has really shifted toward not just protecting the species but protecting the ecosystem and habitat around it."

Dr. Adkesson, vice president of clinical medicine for the Chicago Zoological Society, was speaking to JAVMA News for the July 15, 2017, article "Role of zoos is conservation, zoo veterinarians say."

A habitat is defined as the natural environment where an organism lives. An ecosystem is a community of living organisms in conjunction with the nonliving components of the environment.

Among the various organizations at which veterinarians are involved in habitat and ecosystem conservation are zoological institutions including the Saint Louis Zoo, San Diego Zoo Global, and the Wildlife Conservation Society as well as governmental agencies from the global to the local level, such as, for example, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.

Saint Louis Zoo

Dr. R. Eric Miller is a veterinarian and executive director of the Saint Louis Zoo WildCare Institute, and Dr. Sharon L. Deem is a veterinarian and director of the Saint Louis Zoo Institute for Conservation Medicine.

​San Diego Zoo Global works with this elephant sanctuary in Kenya to rehabilitate elephants and in hopes that Kenyans' one-on-one experiences with the young elephants will change attitudes in an area where there is human-elephant conflict and impact the design of wells, into which many of these elephants have fallen. (Photo by Ken Bohn/San Diego Zoo Global)

"We do look at the habitat needs of the wildlife that we're trying to conserve," Dr. Deem said. "Without healthy environments, you're not going to have healthy wildlife populations. You're not going to have healthy livelihoods for the people around them."

In northern Kenya, the semi-arid grasslands are becoming more arid, so people are keeping camels instead of cattle. The Institute for Conservation Medicine is examining the potential impacts of camel health on wildlife and environmental health.

In another program, ICM is investigating how endocrine-disrupting compounds are feminizing turtles and fish. Dr. Deem said pollutants such as these are everywhere, affecting human and animal health.

The WildCare Institute's Center for Conservation in Western Asia is working with mountain vipers in Armenia, including tracking movement of the snakes, which involves veterinarians. As a result, Dr. Miller said, Armenia has protected two new areas. The center has developed a viper breeding program at the zoo and is helping establish a breeding program in Armenia for native reptiles and amphibians.

ICM also tracks the movement of box turtles in Missouri and tortoises in the Galapagos Islands along with the animals' health status and human drivers of environmental change, including livestock production in the Galapagos. In Missouri, one goal is to put up road signs to protect female box turtles looking for nesting sites.

"Zoos in general are stepping up like they never have before for field conservation," Dr. Miller said. "Zoos are lifeboats for some of the species, and they're critical for some that only survive because they're in zoos, but zoos now are doing field conservation in a major, major way."

San Diego Zoo Global

Dr. Nadine Lamberski is a veterinarian and corporate director of animal health for San Diego Zoo Global. She said habitat protection is important to maintain sustainable populations of plants and animals. Living organisms are interdependent, and each species has a specific role in keeping ecosystems well-balanced.

The Saint Louis Zoo WildCare Institute participates in conservation projects to protect animal species at home in Missouri and around the world. (Courtesy of the Saint Louis Zoo)

Conservation can involve protecting pristine areas, restoring areas, and connecting or reconnecting habitats. In Peru, San Diego Zoo Global is studying movements of wildlife in the Amazon in a pristine area where people want to build roads. The data will inform placement of the roads.

In California's Mojave Desert, the zoo and partners are augmenting populations of tortoises. Dr. Lamberski described the tortoises as ecosystem engineers, building burrows that other animals use, too. The program raises hatchlings in captivity, releases them into the wild, and determines which habitat features lead to greatest survival. Veterinarians oversee hatchling health and nutrition.

In northern Kenya, San Diego Zoo Global is working with Kenyan veterinarians to protect the critically endangered hirola, a species of antelope. One veterinarian is studying diseases impacting the population, such as from livestock, and another veterinarian is working to improve livestock practices.

Also in the Amazon, the zoo is looking at various animal species in pristine areas and in mining areas to document the impact or lack of impact of mining on wildlife. The hope is that these data will inform management decisions on the location or extent of mines.

Wildlife Conservation Society

Dr. Chris Walzer is a veterinarian and executive director for wildlife health for the Wildlife Conservation Society's Wildlife Health Program. Along with doing field conservation, the society operates four zoos and an aquarium in New York City.

Dr. Walzer said most of the world consists of multiuse landscapes, with humans causing rapid, massive change. Livestock and sometimes pets also interface with remnants of wildlife populations.

When he started out 25 years ago, disease was viewed as unimportant in wildlife management, but the conservation community has come to accept the critical role of disease. The Wildlife Conservation Society is working on a project now to mitigate the spillover of peste de petit ruminants from domestic goats and sheep in central Asia to the critically endangered saiga, an antelope species.

The society has 60 field offices and more than 4,000 employees around the world, with the mainstay of the organization being pure conservation projects to establish and manage protected areas such as national parks. In multiuse landscapes, there are all kinds of projects, from forest restoration and preservation to marine protected areas.

Sharks have returned to the New York seascape, and the society's veterinarians are involved with die-offs and strandings. White nose syndrome, a fungal disease in bats, is spreading to the West Coast, and the society is looking at metabolic rates of bats hibernating in caves there.

Dr. Walzer said the Wildlife Conservation Society seeks to protect the wild status of wildlife. The society's vision statement is "WCS envisions a world where wildlife thrives in healthy lands and seas, valued by societies that embrace and benefit from the diversity and integrity of life on earth."

Idaho Department of Fish and Game

Dr. Mark Drew is president of the American Association of Wildlife Veterinarians and the wildlife veterinarian for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. His role at the department is surveillance and management of disease, often an indicator that things are going awry because of habitat quantity or quality issues.

The department deals with brucellosis in elk in the eastern part of the state next to Yellowstone National Park, where elk are a reservoir for the disease, although it originated in cattle. In recent years, elk have transmitted brucellosis back to cattle. The issue is how to allow cattle on the landscape and encourage elk to winter in alternative locations where co-mingling with cattle is minimized. Habitat rejuvenation or planting of browse species for the elk may allow them to winter in locations away from cattle.

Sage-grouse depend on sagebrush for food and cover, but they also eat alfalfa in irrigated fields, where there are mosquitoes that carry West Nile virus—which has a high fatality rate in grouse. Maintaining the sagebrush steppe ecosystem is critical for sage-grouse, and one major problem with habitat quality is invasive weed species.

"From my agency's perspective, habitat is everything," Dr. Drew said. "If we don't have a place for wildlife to live, with all the things they need, we can't sustain what we're doing as an agency."

When the American Association of Wildlife Veterinarians was formed in 1979, most members worked for governmental wildlife management agencies. Current members work at zoological institutions, academic institutions, state and federal governmental agencies, and other organizations.

Dr. Drew concluded, "Veterinarians are an integral part of our ability to do anything to alter the health and well-being of wildlife and can be part of the team effort for habitat conservation and restoration."

Related JAVMA content:

Role of zoos is conservation, zoo veterinarians say (July 15, 2017)