Southeast Asia is one of the most biodiverse regions in the world, containing iconic mammal and bird species such as tigers, Asian elephants, gibbons, orangutans, vultures, and ibises. The explosion in the human population over the last century has resulted in rapid loss of habitat across the region, in many places leaving small pockets of protected areas in a sea of humanity. These protected areas continue to suffer as agricultural and urban development encroaches and illegal hunting impacts dwindling wildlife populations. Given the low numbers of these animals remaining, disease outbreaks pose a significant increase in risk of extirpation.
WCS works in most of the countries of Southeast Asia, from the mountains of western India to the island nations of Papua New Guinea and Fiji. Our wildlife health work spans the region as well, including studies of the impact of canine distemper on tigers and health concerns related to the spread of disease from the movement of wildlife in the illegal trade chains across the region.
The WCS Health Program has established the first surveillance systems for wildlife mortality and diseases Cambodia and Laos, covering over 18 protected areas as well as wildlife rescue centers, and our experts are performing research into the risk of zoonotic disease transmission from bushmeat consumption. WCS has also performed ground-breaking studies on the impacts of deforestation and land-use change on emerging infectious disease.
WCS is also working to bring back a suite of critically endangered turtle and tortoise species across Asia. As just one example, the Burmese star tortoise is critically endangered as the result of excessive hunting for food and for the global pet trade. WCS veterinarians have played a key role in a stunningly successful breeding program in Myanmar that has seen populations rebound from just a few hundred remaining a little over ten years ago to around 14,000 today.
WCS health scientists also have been working with partners to develop the first-of-a-kind hand-held and field-friendly molecular test kit to detect environmental DNA (eDNA) from some of the world’s rarest turtles, many of which are found in Southeast Asia – including the Yangtze giant softshell turtle, of which only three are currently known to exist – to search for potentially undiscovered animals that may have evaded detection by traditional survey methods.