Biodiversity / Disease Control / Emerging Diseases / Environment / Epidemiology / Kenya / Mozambique / PA / Southern Africa / Tanzania / Wildlife

Veterinarian Steve Osofsky on smart ways of tackling wildlife, livestock and human health in tandem

Kitengela plains wildlife and livestock

Photo credit: ILRI / Mann

Steve Osofsky, wildlife veterinarian and Director of Wildlife Health Policy at the international Wildlife Conservation Society, spoke with Laurel Neme on her ‘The WildLife’ radio show and podcast about the intersection between wildlife, livestock and human health, and how paying attention to all three in tandem leads to better outcomes for all.

Here are some excerpts from the article.
‘Nature-based tourism, such as photographic safaris and trophy hunting, now contributes about as much to the economies of southern African countries as agriculture, forestry, and fisheries combined—a remarkable and relatively recent development documented by the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. . . .

‘Livestock farming is an important traditional way for communities in sub-Saharan Africa to build and maintain wealth, as well as attain food security. Essentially, the TFCA [transfrontier conservation areas] concept and current internationally accepted approaches to the management of transboundary animal diseases (TADs) are largely incompatible. The TFCA concept promotes free movement of wildlife over large geographic areas, whereas the present approach to the control of TADs (especially for directly transmitted infections) is to use vast fences to prevent movement of susceptible animals between areas where TADs occur and areas where they do not, and to similarly restrict trade in commodities derived from animals on the same basis. In short, the incompatibility between current regulatory approaches for the control of diseases of agro-economic importance and the vision of vast conservation landscapes without major fences needs to be reconciled in the interest of regional risk-diversification of land-use options and livelihood opportunities. An integrated, interdisciplinary approach offers the most promising way to address these issues—one where the well-being of wildlife and ecosystems, domestic animals, and Africa’s people are assessed holistically, with a “One World – One Health” perspective.’

And here are some excerpts from the interview of Steve Osofsky.
‘The health of domestic animals relates directly to the health and livelihoods of farmers anywhere in the world—and certainly in places where there’s an intense interaction between free ranging wildlife and livestock, and competition for resources like grazing and water, which is less of an issue in the eastern United States then it is in southern Africa, the relationship between wildlife populations and livestock populations is an intimate one. So, understanding that and not only looking at basic transmission of infectious diseases but also at resource competition and how it relates to land use, is very important. And again, looking at livelihoods. Looking at how people can benefit not just from agriculture but from wildlife is very important. I tell students that my job in many ways is to help make wildlife an economically rational and a socio-culturally acceptable land use choice. Because if that’s not the case, then wildlife isn’t going to survive. It’s a luxury for us in the developed world to want wildlife nearby or in a national park that we can visit. If you’re still struggling to feed your family, conservation and aesthetic appreciation of nature are not necessarily that common. So a lot of our work is about finding ways to make wildlife a sensible land use, and because of things like tourism and things like hunting, that’s possible in many places. . . . Wildlife, as a land use, can generate more per unit hectare in some of these areas than any other form of economic activity. . . .

‘We were all trained in our different disciplines. If you learned about agriculture, for example, that’s naturally the lens you probably view the world through. Now in what we call sort of a “One World – One Health” approach, we really are pushing sectors to work together because real world problems aren’t neatly compartmentalized. They’re messy and they’re linked together, and that’s really what we’re trying to deal with in the AHEAD program [Animal and Human Health for the Environment and Development]. Looking at these transfrontier areas we found a receptive audience, because these countries recognize that they need some assistance on this. A lot of them have good capacity, but they could always use a boost both in terms of thinking about these issues cross-sectorally and in terms of resources to actually solve the problems. . . . We [AHEAD] are largely a facilitator. We are a convener. Within countries and across countries, we’ve literally helped get folks from the Ministries of Agriculture, Ministries of Wildlife and Ministries of Health together at the same table to look at these issues and agree that they all have a stake. That wasn’t happening. . . .

‘We’re living in a very challenging time. We look at things like climate change. Just like you want to have a diversified investment portfolio, you want to have a diversified economic or livelihood portfolio. For example, as most current climate models indicate, parts of southern Africa will likely get much, much drier- wildlife often does much better at those times. People can still come and see wildlife at times of drought; wildlife evolved in this region. When the rains are good and livestock is incredibly productive, that’s great too. To have your eggs in multiple baskets so that peoples’ livelihoods can benefit from both natural resources, like wildlife, as well as livestock, that’s a win-win. And that’s what we’re very interested in facilitating. . . .

‘I see the animal health issues as make or break, which is why we’ve created AHEAD and are investing in it. Because even if you get everything else right – certainly in the southern Africa context – if you don’t deal with this conflict between export agriculture and the current regulations that require physical separation of wildlife and livestock by fencing, if you don’t deal with that, then you won’t have true TFCAs- you won’t have a peace park. So, the good news is, since those fences were put up in the late 1950’s and 1960’s and since, we have learned a lot more about diseases like foot and mouth and ways to create, as I was saying earlier, safe beef products, so that importing countries can be assured that the product they’re importing won’t bring foot and mouth disease into their country. Those methods exist, and now it’s a matter of helping people understand what they are and creating some pilot projects—very incrementally and cautiously looking at new models to prove that they work. You need science-based proof of concept so that eventually policy change can be adopted and some of these win-win opportunities can really be implemented.

‘With the bird flu it was really clear that we hadn’t had a good “One Health” model in place. In places like Indonesia, we were discovering bird flu when people were dying. We should be finding bird flu when it’s still in chickens. But because the veterinary infrastructure in that case was so weak, it wasn’t picked up. If we were getting it right, we’d be detecting these issues in their points of origin, much earlier on (“upstream”) in the process. And, ideally over time, as we’re educating ourselves, we’ll be making investments to prevent these things. We’ll be thinking much more proactively about deforestation and changing where we put up dams, because those types of land use changes are often what precipitate changes in ecology that lead to emerging diseases—whether it’s the resurgence of malaria we see around logging areas in the Amazon, areas that are often being cleared in order to produce more land for livestock grazing, or something else.

‘The relationship between those types of land use changes and huge public health costs are very real. We’re still not very good at recognizing that ahead of time, and we’re often looking at short-term profits as opposed to long-term costs. We need to get past that. The whole “One World – One Health” approach is about thinking about this stuff more proactively. Using good science but not waiting until the outbreak—trying to be more contemplative in the land-use decisions that we make and their likely outcomes. . . .

‘. . . Everybody wants to be healthy, and everyone who depends on livestock, which is much of the developing world, wants their livestock to be healthy. So it gives us an entry point to have people see the relevance of [the linkages between public health, agriculture, and conservation]. . . .

‘The [One World-One Health] idea is a very old one – the idea of a relationship between veterinary medicine and human health and environmental stewardship. That’s not new. What’s new is actually applying it now in the complex world we live in. We’re seeing a lot of parties do that now, as I said, across the UN system, for example, in various countries. I think you’re only going to continue to see more and more of that . . . .’

Read the whole article and interview by Laurel Neme at Mongabay: The role of wildlife conservation in human health, 7 September 2010.

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