The human footprint on the Earth is heavy: less than a quarter of our planet remains wild, and one million species are in danger of extinction. Human encroachment into natural areas, climate change, and the commercial wildlife trade are bringing people, wildlife, and livestock into closer and more frequent contact, increasing the “spillover” risk of zoonotic-origin diseases like Covid-19, Ebola, HIV/AIDS, and SARs. Indeed, more than 70 percent of emerging zoonotic diseases in humans and livestock originate from wildlife—and based on current trends, future outbreaks are likely to spread faster and occur more often. Just as critically, humans and their domesticated animals are exposing wildlife to new pathogens that are causing unprecedented mortality and global havoc.
Our goal is to develop an early warning system that can coordinate effective responses to these increasing exposures—and help protect the health of wildlife, livestock or people—by detecting and sharing information about wildlife health and mortality events in real time, across a wide array of actors, on a global scale.
The wildlife health surveillance network we envision—WildHealthNet—connects people who encounter wildlife, including rangers, hunters, and staff at animal rescue centers, with scientists, decision-makers, and stakeholders who can take action to analyze disease threats and try to prevent their spread. We have successfully piloted this approach in Southeast Asia but this has never been done at scale before. We know it’s possible—and our survival could depend on it.
For example, if rangers patrolling a protected area boundary encounter an unusual bird die off, they can easily share that information through WildHealthNet, triggering an immediate investigation and the safe collection of samples to determine whether there is a potential disease risk to people, as with the Avian flu in 1918, or to poultry. When appropriate, wildlife, public, or livestock interventions could be introduced. In short, the rapid information sharing about the dead birds in this example would act as a “canary in the coal mine,” helping to provide insights about a new threat and preventing it from becoming a more serious danger.
WildHealthNet is founded on 20 years of WCS’s boots-on-the-ground wildlife health experience in over 60 countries. It addresses the need to operationalize integrated, adaptive, and robust wildlife health surveillance systems at both national and global scales. Working with partners through WildHealthNet, we will build collaborative networks, expand skills through capacity bridging and training, and apply innovative technologies. WildHealthNet’s ultimate purpose is response – making sure decision-makers have the right information to take action.
- WildHealthBuild: In each country where it operates, WildHealthNet will connect partners across sectors at local and national levels by building relationships and trust through workshops and meetings. WildHealthNet bridges traditionally siloed expertise and groups to foster successful cooperation and information-sharing.
Workshop participants discuss how diverse local actors, from rangers on patrol to district veterinarians, can contribute to Vietnam’s national wildlife health surveillance system. © WCS Viet Nam
- WildHealthSkills: WildHealthNet will focus on capacity bridging and building with in-person and virtual trainings for all actors in the network, from field-based rangers to laboratory techs to national coordinators. Our goal is to develop and share science-based protocols and best practices, and implement strong curricula so that each actor is empowered to fully participate.
- WildHealthTech: WildHealthNet will develop and employ innovative, appropriate, and user-friendly technologies for surveillance. With proven, globally distributed, open-source software (e.g., SMART for Health) and hardware like handheld devices for data collection and diagnostics, WildHealthNet supports effective and timely communication of data for improved reporting of wildlife health and rapid response.
- WildHealthResponse: All of the above adds up to translating relevant health data into actionable real-time information supporting stakeholders and decision-makers in structuring and implementing a response—which in turn will optimize the health of wildlife, people, and livestock, and help prevent pandemics. We harness local knowledge to inform decision-making and translate a global One Health vision into locally relevant solutions to halt catastrophic species extinction and wilderness loss.
Conducting participatory mapping interviews with local communities in Laos on the frontlines of an African Swine Fever outbreak, to assess impacts on wild boar and their potential role as a reservoir host. © WCS Laos
In 2019 WCS began piloting the WildHealthNet surveillance system, successfully building critical baseline capacity in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.
Early results have been promising: our system was the first to detect African Swine Fever, a devastating domestic pig disease, in free-ranging wildlife in all three countries and identified biosecurity breaches that contributed to its spread. We also discovered a significant transnational outbreak of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza in important wetlands and rapidly informed public and livestock health partners to limit onward transmission from hundreds of dead wild birds. The government of Laos recently adopted and codified the network’s reporting structure. We aim to build on this progress to create regional and then global networks of countries. implementing WildHealthNet.
WCS is uniquely placed to help prevent future viral spillovers and outbreaks, building on our unparalleled expertise in wildlife health and wildlife trade, the strength and reach of our global policy and field operations, our scientific expertise, and our longstanding partnerships with governments in sites with high-risk wildlife markets.
Unparalleled scientific and wildlife health expertise: WCS is the leading expert on wildlife diseases at the human-wildlife-livestock interfaces, and the only major conservation NGO with an international team of veterinarians and scientists dedicated to disease surveillance, rapid response, local training, and wildlife health research. WCS is also a pioneer in advancing the One Health approach, which recognizes the interconnection between the health of people, animals, and the environment.
- West Nile virus: Our experts at the Bronx Zoo helped identify the West Nile virus, and the samples we collected were used to develop the animal vaccine for it.
- 2019 Berlin Principles on One Health: WCS, in collaboration with the German government, brought together the world’s top experts in public health, wildlife health, and wildlife trade just months before the pandemic hit to develop the Berlin Principles aimed at unifying and strengthening global efforts to prevent the emergence or resurgence of diseases that threaten humans and animals.
- Ebola: Our scientists have worked in Ebola “hot zones” for 15 years to identify disease reservoirs, create innovative point-of-care diagnostic tests, and help reduce risks to local communities and great apes, which are also vulnerable to Ebola.
Biomeme units, a portable smartphone-enabled RT-PCR diagnostic technology, deployed in the Republic of Congo to rapidly test wildlife carcasses for Ebola virus to prevent spillover into humans. ©WCS Republic of Congo
Counter-wildlife trafficking and policy strength: WCS has the largest global anti-wildlife trafficking presence of any conservation organization, with teams on the ground in nearly 30 countries. We partner with governments in source, transit, and consumer countries, including China, offering advice on how to combat wildlife crime through legislation, enforcement, and prosecutions; helping to develop and implement species-focused action plans; building local ranger and law enforcement capacity, conducting disease surveillance and fostering communication between authorities along the global trade chain.
WCS also is a global leader at the intergovernmental level in wildlife trade policy, including wildlife trafficking, and governments value our expertise in these issues (including through the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, CITES). We have senior staff who have attended all 12 of the last CITES Conferences, were on President Obama’s Advisory Council on Wildlife Trafficking, and have been appointed to the Royal Foundation’s Transport Task Force.
WCS successfully pushed for the closure of domestic ivory markets in China, the US, and the UK, and we combat poaching of elephants for ivory on the ground, with elephant populations stabilizing or increasing in African sites where we have ensured long-term management and protection. We have also led globally on the inclusion of shark and ray species on CITES, and in combating illegal trade in sharks, freshwater turtles, tortoises, parrots, pangolins, and many other species.
Global field presence and longstanding partnerships: WCS has boots on the ground in 60 countries. We build strong, durable partnerships that often span decades, making us trusted advisors to decision-makers and stakeholders at all levels—from local and indigenous communities to national governments to major global forums.
Click on image to download the WildHealthNet overview PDF.