(Africa Geographic, 2018)
With COVID-19 lingering in the back of our minds as a not-so-distant memory, the topic of wildlife diseases and how they affect the world as a whole is nothing short of terrifying. Nevertheless, our wildlife is just as affected by our zoonotic (fancy word for diseases that can be transmitted between animals and people) diseases as we are by theirs.
Established wildlife diseases range from avian influenza to rabies while emerging diseases have the potential to cause large-scale outbreaks in both humans and animals (COVID, is that you?). In particular, chimpanzees are highly susceptible to a wide range of human diseases and many sanctuaries isolated their chimps from human contact as much as possible during the peak of COVID-19.
WHAT ABOUT HOW THIS AFFECTS THE ENVIRONMENT?
Disease outbreaks in wildlife can decimate populations, severely impact genetic pools, and cause crucial changes in community structure. Unsurprisingly, they can even drive a species to extinction - our amphibian friends and their struggle with the spread of chytrid fungus is proof of that. This leads to imbalances in the ecosystem equilibrium because every species serves a purpose, and without that species that purpose isn’t fulfilled. Wildlife also tend to be disease reservoirs for livestock and transmit loads of diseases to them, causing a lot of human-wildlife conflict when livestock losses occur - but more on that next time.
HOW DO THESE DISEASES BREAK OUT AND WHAT ARE WE DOING ABOUT IT?
Diseases can be transmitted between wildlife through direct contact, through vectors like mosquitoes, or through contamination of their environment. We can also contribute to the spread of diseases through trading wildlife and wildlife products, especially on the black market where this trade is largely unregulated.
Since we live in Africa, the heart of civilization, much of our wildlife is admired from all over the world and as a result, there is massive demand to export our wildlife. State veterinarians are responsible for the testing of every animal to be exported for a range of diseases, some of which are:
Foot and mouth disease
Much of Southern Africa is in the midst of an outbreak of both tuberculosis and foot and mouth disease with our African Buffalo species being particularly affected. Without these state-enforced tests, the potential for the spread of these diseases worldwide is astronomical - especially for tuberculosis and foot and mouth disease, which are both alarmingly contagious.
HOW DO WE STOP AN OUTBREAK ONCE IT'S STARTED?
After the last few years, we can without a doubt be considered experts in this area. Yep, you guessed it - rapid detection and quarantine are the way to go. Culling and enhanced monitoring and surveillance are also effective methods, although that probably works better for our furry friends than it would for us…
WHERE DO I FIT INTO ALL OF THIS?
It’s really important that we’re all aware of these diseases and what they could mean for the world and the living things surrounding us. Our role in making a difference is simply avoiding trading or consuming wildlife or wildlife products, and reporting any illegal trade we might come across (yes, we’re talking about those animal hides or leopard tortoises sold on the side of the road!).
Lastly, it’s never a bad idea to support any of the dedicated NGOs working tirelessly to make sure all of these diseases are kept on a leash! Some good examples would be the Wildlife Conservation Society and the Defenders of Wildlife - they can always use a helping hand or a donation.
THE EXTRA MILE
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