Emerging and re-emerging diseases can pose a significant threat to the survival of wild animal populations and, if zoonotic, to human health as well. Recent examples of such disease outbreaks include the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, likely arising from an initial contact between a young child and a bat, and the outbreaks of Peste de Petit Ruminants (PPR) that have devastated Saiga antelope in Mongolia, after spreading from domestic livestock into wild populations. WCS Health Programs support many of our WCS landscapes in surveillance for diseases in wildlife populations and is training local teams on the ground to conduct basic surveillance that can inform central level teams and enable a rapid response to any outbreak.
It’s estimated there are over 600,000 as yet unidentified zoonotic viruses in wildlife and most emerging infectious diseases (e.g., COVID-19, Ebola virus disease) of humans are zoonoses with wildlife origins. Early detection of wildlife morbidity and mortality events facilitates a timely response to disease threats to aid in the protection of wildlife, livestock, and public health. Wildlife health surveillance is a vital but often missing component in disease surveillance systems globally. In 2021, WHO stated ‘wildlife disease surveillance systems are not yet common but need urgently to be developed'.
To solve this surveillance gap, WCS is leveraging our decades of health expertise and response to wildlife disease events around the world and combining it with an existing, globally distributed, open-source technology. WCS has helped spearhead the development and implementation of the Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool (SMART), a suite of technological tools originally designed to collect and manage law enforcement data from protected areas (https://smartconservationtools.org/). WCS has adapted SMART to overcome technological barriers for wildlife health surveillance in remote areas: SMART for Health.
WCS Health Programs' teams also led wildlife surveillance activities in Vietnam and Mongolia for USAID's PREDICT 2 project, with a strong emphasis on local capacity building, and previously led PREDICT work in Cambodia and Lao PDR and Latin America, with a focus on risky behaviors for zoonotic disease emergence such as wildlife trafficking, trade and hunting. Through the EU funded LACANET project, WCS contributed to building wildlife health surveillance networks within and between the two countries of Lao PDR and Cambodia, by establishing collaborations with government and NGO partners in protected areas and rescue centers. In Cambodia, over 186 staff were trained to report and collect sick and dead wildlife. This includes forest rangers, wildlife monitoring team, rescue center staff, and other government staff from the environment, forestry and animal health sector. In Lao PDR, similar trainings involved over 120 staff. This has allowed the detection of significant health threats to wildlife, livestock and humans, such as cases of poisoning in protected areas, outbreaks of influenza A virus, as well as a carcinogenic virus outbreak in sun bears, which would not have been detected otherwise.
Building on these frameworks, WCS is now contracted by the US Department of Defense Defense and Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) to support national governments in structuring and implementing their national wildlife health surveillance strategies in Cambodia, Viet Nam, and Lao PDR. This project, the WildHealthNet Wildlife Surveillance Project, will serve as a continuation of previous efforts to build capacity for wildlife health surveillance in these countries, with a particular focus on monitoring disease and mortality of wildlife in and around protected areas. This work is paramount to one of WCS’ core strategies to protect wildlife, as health monitoring allows identifying on-going or emerging threats to wildlife. In these countries, WCS is leveraging long-term on-the-ground presence and close collaboration with government and non-governmental partners in the fields of protected area management and health.
USAID PREDICT Project