Steve Osofsky, wildlife veterinarian and also Director of Wildlife Health Policy at the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), 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.
This interview originally aired aired March 1, 2010 and was rebroadcast September 6, 2010.
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. With its high fraction of global biodiversity, southern African countries are trying to maximize returns from this sector where they enjoy a global comparative advantage by exploring the formation of transfrontier (or transboundary) conservation areas (TFCAs).
As opposed to discrete transfrontier parks, TFCAs often include national parks, neighboring game reserves, hunting areas, and conservancies embedded within a matrix of land under traditional communal tenure. Currently, the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region contains at least 13 existing and proposed terrestrial TFCAs. Together, these cover 1.2 million square kilometers, an area similar to the size of Texas, California and New York combined. However, the management of wildlife and livestock diseases (including zoonoses–diseases transmissible between animals & people) within the envisaged larger transboundary landscapes remains unresolved and an emerging policy issue of major concern to livestock production, associated access to export markets, and other sectors (like public health) in the region.
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 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.
Steve Osofsky, wildlife vet and WCS’s Director of Wildlife Health Policy.
Steve Osofsky, the first wildlife veterinarian in the southern African country of Botswana (back in the early 1990s), a place known for its prolific and untouched wildlife, and now the Wildlife Conservation Society’s (WCS) Director of Wildlife Health Policy, explains how more and more countries in southern Africa are finding that nature-based activities like photographic tourism and safari hunting contribute as much or more to their economies as traditional land uses of forestry, fisheries and agriculture. Dr. Osofsky relates how an understanding of animal diseases is vital so as to avoid unintended consequences in agriculture or for human health.
Steve Osofsky has worked in the zoological community as the Director of Animal Health Services at the Fossil Rim Wildlife Center in Glen Rose, Texas, and also in a variety of exotic regions characterized by a rich abundance of wildlife, as well as pervasive human and animal health challenges. He first experienced East Africa in 1984 and 1985 as a Harvard University Traveling Fellow, and later served as the first Wildlife Veterinary Officer for the Botswana Department of Wildlife and National Parks. Dr. Osofsky’s career then expanded well outside the bounds of a traditional veterinary clinical career into a variety of policy positions, including as Biodiversity Policy Program Specialist at the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and as Director for Field Support for World Wildlife Fund’s Species Program, with a focus on Asia and Africa. In 2002, he joined the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Field Veterinary Program as their first Senior Policy Advisor for Wildlife Health. He continues there today as Director for Wildlife Health Policy. In addition to his current position with the Wildlife Conservation Society, Dr. Osofsky is an adjunct assistant professor with the University of Maryland and has served on eight World Conservation Union Species Survival Commission specialist groups. He is also currently on the Advisory Council of the American Association of Wildlife Veterinarians.
A separate interview with Steve Osofsky on his experiences as Botswana’s first wildlife veterinarian in Botswana, aired on February 22, 2010. In it, Osofsky details his adventures, from how he played “MacGyver” to make due with locally available materials so that he could run medical tests on some eland to when he stared down an angry elephant whose head entered his helicopter before he did!
Laurel Neme: How did your experiences as a wildlife veterinarian influenced your thinking about the intersection between wildlife, human and livestock health, and why is it important to look at all of these together?
Maasai man in Kenya, photo by Rhett A. Butler
Steve Osofsky: If we look at what affects people’s relationship with wildlife, it often comes down to whether they benefit from wildlife or whether they’re impacted negatively by wildlife, and those impacts often happen at the interface between agriculture and wildlife. So, if people are experiencing intense predation—if you’re raising cattle and lions are constantly taking your cows, you’re not going to be very fond of lions. But sometimes the scales can be tilted a bit—I’ll give you an example. One of the interesting things that’s happened in parts of Kenya is some veterinarians looked at just this issue: What were the impacts of predators on Maasai livestock versus the impacts of disease? And to make a fairly complex story short, the impacts of disease were found to be orders of magnitude higher. In other words, the Maasai, in this particular study, were losing much more in terms of agricultural productivity to six or eight common diseases compared to the occasional animal that they would lose to a lion or other predator, but the difference was the diseases were largely “background noise.” They’d live with them. They knew they were there, but they didn’t have any tools to address them.
Laurel Neme: What kind of diseases are you talking about?
Steve Osofsky: Often tick-borne diseases, parasitic diseases, different types of nematodes that drained the animals, and there are viral diseases. There were a whole range. Some of them easily dealt with through basic paraveterinary interventions- often that can be done by providing training and supply chains locally. You don’t have to have a veterinarian on site all of the time. There are programs where we train paraveterinarians, sort of “barefoot vets,” if you will, where you can train community members to, for example, do things like vaccinate poultry for Newcastle disease. They can charge local poultry holders (many households) for cost recovery and a little bit of profit- and eliminate a devastating disease. You don’t need to be a vet to do that but it is advisable to have a vet, and ideally a social scientist, to help do the initial training and help set up the supply chain, etc.
Lions in Tanzania, photo by Rhett A. Butler
What I was saying is, when the Maasai in this case would see the remnants of a cow and see lion prints on the ground, it was a very obvious visceral reaction. They wanted to go out and get rid of the predator that was impacting their livelihood. Regarding the diseases, being less visible until veterinarians looked at the situation, it wasn’t clear that the disease impacts were so much more significant in terms of milk and meat production. So my point is, if you can bring barefoot vets programs, for example, in the right situations to these communities, at the same time as you are working on conservation, you can actually raise people’s thresholds of tolerance for living with wildlife. In other words, if they can improve their agricultural production with some basic veterinary interventions, then the occasional loss from predation is not necessarily as impactful. But it has to be done in tandem. It’s not automatic. At the same time, you obviously want to create economic opportunities for people to benefit from the presence of wildlife. So that maybe involves helping communities band together to create their own lodge—which has happened in a number of countries, where communities actually create facilities and create partnerships with tour companies, and benefit again from having wildlife in their areas. We have to look at those types of creative solutions.
Laurel Neme: A lot of what you talked about is the interaction between wildlife, humans and livestock, and conflicts between those parts of the triangle. I wanted to see how this has evolved from your days as a wildlife vet in Botswana.
Steve Osofsky: It’s been an interesting route since I left Botswana. One of the things I saw there in the early to mid 90’s was that there was a strong aid presence, including USAID [US Agency for International Development], our own government’s branch that focuses on development assistance. I found a lot of things that donor agencies were doing in those days somewhat baffling, to be honest. Being within the Government of Botswana, and seeing where I thought the needs were and where the technical assistance could be most usefully targeted, I was often surprised at what appeared to be a mismatch between local needs and donor interests.
Laurel Neme: Do you have any examples of that?
Steve Osofsky: You would have investments in agricultural development from one donor and investments in the wildlife sector from another donor, often with a focus on some of the same geographic areas of interest. But if you’re not working in coordination, you could essentially cancel each other out, in terms of not having informed land use planning. These things have to be looked at holistically, but getting donors to work together was often a challenge. Obviously, this was years ago. Since then things have gotten better in many countries. I don’t want to paint a broad brush. Today, there’s much more emphasis on coordinated approaches. A lot of these countries have lots of different donors and they’ve gotten sort of fed up and said, look, we want your help but we need to coordinate it so that these projects are mutually reinforcing.
Anyway, the reason I bring that up is it really got me interested in development assistance, and although I loved being a field vet and hanging out of a helicopter and doing all that cool stuff, I often wondered if I could potentially have more impact influencing land use planning from a policy level.
Laurel Neme: I wanted to ask you about that. As a vet, that’s really unusual to have that perspective in the policy realm.
Steve Osofsky: Well, I saw that the long term future of the places that I was immersed in was unlikely to really be influenced for the most part by some of the research we were doing, but more likely to be influenced by political decisions and policy decisions that the veterinary sector might not be impacting as much as they could.
Laurel Neme: What do you mean specifically?
Steve Osofsky: Animal health and the relationships between animal health and human health and livelihoods and development are very close, but non-veterinarians don’t necessarily know that. Veterinarians have tremendous training and knowledge but have generally not been incredibly effective at sharing that knowledge and inserting themselves in a development context within which we have a lot to offer.
Laurel Neme: So what happened once you had that realization?
Steve Osofsky: I came back to the United States to Fossil Rim for a few years and ran the animal health program there and developed a fairly comprehensive international training program. I started to bring a large number of students from overseas to Texas, where we had a very large land base, and free-ranging mostly African game and did a lot of training. I was still yearning to get more engaged at the policy level.
Laurel Neme: So what happened?
Elephant in Tanzania, photo by Rhett A. Butler
Steve Osofsky: I heard about these fellowships, these American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) fellowships in Washington, DC, including fellowships at USAID. To make a long story short, I ended up applying to become a AAAS Science and Diplomacy Fellow and I got one of these fellowships, which was very exciting, and it was an interesting transition career-wise. But I basically hung up my dart gun and moved to Washington, and I spent two years within USAID on the biodiversity team which at the time, and it may still be the case, but at the time USAID’s biodiversity program was the largest bilateral funder of conservation in the world. So a lot of the funds that were going to the World Wildlife Fund and Conservation International and Wildlife Conservation Society were emanating from USAID. And that’s still the case. It’s very important program. So I really got a very intensive education, not only on how USAID works on the inside. I had just been in the Botswana government, so I learned how an African government works on the inside and now I was learning how my own government worked on the inside. I got to work with the State Department and the Department of the Interior and a bit with the US Department of Agriculture. It was fascinating.
Over those two years, I got a better understanding of why aid works when it works and why it doesn’t work when it doesn’t work. You can’t develop that perspective any better than being in the belly of the beast. It was really the good, the bad, and the ugly, and I really have a much better appreciation of the bureaucracy of foreign assistance, if you will.
Laurel Neme: When it works, why does it work? And do you have an example of it working very well that you saw while you were at the US Agency for International Development?
Steve Osofsky: I think that when it works, it’s because there are earnest partnerships between implementing agencies, funders, and recipient countries, and that’s a lot to have aligned. So the NGOs that really establish strong local partnerships and go through the transaction cost of developing that kind of buy-in are more likely to deliver sustained results. So, there are results of successful conservation outcomes and development outcomes- those that you can see after the investment is gone are the products of projects that have involved not only that bridge created between the donor, the implementers, and the host country implementers- but sustained results also often correlate with projects that were multidisciplinary in nature (which is less common).
Laurel Neme: Now I know you have devoted a lot of your career to making that more common. So tell me what you’ve been doing?
Steve Osofsky: In my career since then one of my emphases has been on recognizing the cross-sectoral nature of a lot of the problems were trying to solve. Unfortunately, much donor assistance is still sort of thematic. So, there’s money from the agriculture program or from the livestock bureau or from the conservation team, but we’re often required to solve problems that involve all those issues.
Laurel Neme: So what have you done?
Female lion with wildebeest kill in Tanzania’s Ngorongoro Crater, photo by Rhett A. Butler
Steve Osofsky: After I left USAID, I went to the World Wildlife Fund for five years and managed programs in Africa and Asia as their Director of Field Support and tried to apply all the lessons I’d accumulated over the years, not only from the zoological community but from living and working in Africa. (I’d also lived in Africa before I became a veterinarian. We haven’t talked about that. We probably don’t have time to.) But I had a lot of African experience before Botswana. And then applying what I learned about being in the US government and at WWF, I tried to develop programs that recognized all these linkages. At the same time, when I was at WWF, I wasn’t hired by WWF as a veterinarian. I was hired more for my programmatic experience in general, and I saw lots of opportunities to look at the relevance of the interface between domestic animal health, wildlife health, human health and environmental stewardship.
Laurel Neme: Can you describe some of those relationships? I think here in the United States it’s very different than worldwide, or maybe it’s not so different.
Steve Osofsky: Yeah, I think there are probably a lot of commonalities. 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.
Laurel Neme: Do you have some examples of where wildlife in Botswana is basically paying for itself and has become one of the main economic drivers in the country?
Steve Osofsky: In the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, when colonial governments were looking for ways to find economic traction, they turned to beef exports and that led to the fencing dilemmas and the conflict between export agriculture and wildlife conservation—where migratory pathways were cutoff in many place and hundreds of thousands of wild animals perished. In those days, I don’t think wildlife was valued as a resource in economic terms.
Now today, we can look at the statistics and recognize that in SADC, the Southern African Development Community – which, basically if you look at a map is Tanzania all the way down through Zambia, Zimbabwe, Angola, Namibia, Botswana, Mozambique, South Africa, Malawi, and several other countries – in the SADC region nature-based activities, which include photographic tourism and trophy hunting, they contribute about as much to the gross domestic product of that region as forestry, fisheries and agriculture combined. That’s a relatively new development and it has huge meaning for the leaders of these countries who now want to capitalize on their strategic comparative advantage. So, instead of relying so much on agriculture, there is a big push to capitalize on nature and wildlife. And that’s led to this interest in transfrontier conservation – an interest in countries creating corridors, creating links between parks across international boundaries.
Laurel Neme: So tell me more about that?
Steve Osofsky: One of the projects we’ve been working on since 2003 is in Southern Africa’s Great Limpopo Transfrontier Conservation Area. This is a region shared by South Africa, Zimbabwe and Mozambique. These three countries have signed a treaty to reconnect land areas, not to create one giant national park but basically to rezone, so that wildlife can move back and forth across places that it hasn’t roamed in any great numbers for many, many years—the idea being that wildlife, as a land use, can generate more per unit hectare in some of these areas than any other form of economic activity.
Laurel Neme: That’s really a stunning development. The mindset had to be really different because for years and years it was always agriculture or minerals that one thought of as the economic driver.
Steve Osofsky: It is exciting and it’s also a bit unnerving in that we’re not sure whether this is going to work. I think some of these transfrontier initiatives have—the politics have moved faster than the science, if I can say that. We certainly didn’t start the peace parks movement (we, in the Wildlife Conservation Society). But, going back many years ago as I envisioned countries starting to think about this, I saw that we needed to get a better handle on what that would mean—reconnecting these areas—what it would mean for the movement of diseases and cross-sectoral impacts between the wildlife sector, agriculture and public health.
I’ll give you a few examples. In the Great Limpopo, over the past several decades, each of the three countries has sort of evolved its own disease environment. These areas were largely separated by fences. For example, in South Africa, going back about 180 years, European cattle brought in a disease called bovine tuberculosis, or BTB. BTB is like regular tuberculosis. It can infect people. It’s a zoonotic disease, meaning it can move between animals and people. In 1990, scientists first found bovine tuberculosis had moved into the wildlife of Kruger National Park, which is a very well known park in South Africa. It had probably been there for much longer, but they had never found it. Once they started active surveillance, they monitored it and almost like a fire burning, it moved. This organism moved from the south of Kruger all the way on up to the northern part of the park. So now – largely in buffalo, it spilled over into cheetahs and baboons and lions – bovine tuberculosis is essentially endemic in Kruger. If we want to reconnect Kruger, for example, across the border to Zimbabwe’s Gonarezhou National Park, we need to know what the bovine tuberculosis situation is in Zimbabwe. Scientists are actively looking at that now. And Zimbabwe had done a pretty good job controlling BTB historically. We now think that there is still some BTB on the Zimbabwean side, but we need to work cross-sectorally [to protect] people living in this area (between Kruger and Gonarezhou). … This is a very high HIV/AIDS prevalence AIDS area, so people are immunosuppressed- that increases your susceptibility to diseases like tuberculosis. At the same time, culturally, boiling milk is not widely adopted and meat hygiene isn’t very good—and BTB is spread through contaminated milk and meat. So, as conservationists, we have a responsibility to make sure that any vision we have for connectivity doesn’t create more problems, in the livestock agriculture or public health sectors, than the problems that it solves for the conservation community. In other words, the net gain has to be there.
The AHEAD (Animal & Human Health for the Environment And Development) Program, which is something I thought about starting many, many years ago, was really set-up when I moved into the Wildlife Conservation Society in 2002, to proactively help countries look at these issues, so that if conservation was going to be a land use choice they really wanted to expand, that they could ideally mitigate some of the disease threats as they were developing this vision for connectivity.
Laurel Neme: Do you have other examples of these kinds of disease threats?
Steve Osofsky: Just as another example on the Mozambique side of the Great Limpopo, rabies is actually a big problem. The veterinary services there are relatively weak. Mozambique has a long history of civil war and a weak civil service in many sectors. So a lot of feral dogs are unvaccinated, and kids often get bitten, and rabies is a big problem. As some of the fencing has started to come down between Mozambique and South Africa, we now, for the first time ever, are seeing rabies in Kruger National Park, which is a park that’s probably the best studied, from a disease point of view, on the continent. They’d never seen rabies before in Kruger. Now a dog strain has been found – it’s gotten into jackals, for example – and that has potentially significant ecological implications.
To give you yet one more example in this tri-national area: The Zimbabwe component, part of it has Nagana, which is sleeping sickness of cattle caused by trypanosomiasis.
Laurel Neme: How is that spread?
Steve Osofsky: Trypanosomiasis is spread by tsetse flies. As these governments try and reconnect and modify habitats to give wildlife freer range between the three countries, they have to be very cognizant of what types of habitat tsetse flies like and what kinds of ways you can prevent the spread of tsetse flies. Because, if trypanosomiasis gets back farther south, that has huge economic implications for livestock – for example, on the western boundary of Kruger in South Africa, where they haven’t had Nagana since 1903 – and it also has huge implications for animals like white rhinos. Kruger now has the largest population of white rhinos on the planet – thousands of white rhinos. They are actually somewhat susceptible to trypanosomiasis. Since it hasn’t been there since the early 1900’s, to have it come back right now could be quite devastating for the rhino population. So these are all things we all have to think about.
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 within the AHEAD Program. 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.
Laurel Neme: So what are you doing? Continuing with the Limpopo example, what is AHEAD doing to help in this area, both in terms of studying it or solutions?
SO: I think the first thing we did, honestly, was to help raise awareness about these issues and the potential risks of not getting them right. I’ll be honest with you, in Limpopo, as I said, some of the political drivers of reconnecting this landscape are moving faster than the science. I’m not going to pretend that it’s all going to go well. I think some of the horses are, or some of the zebras, are already out of the barn in the Great Limpopo and that’s unfortunate, but what we have done, I think, that wasn’t happening as much as it needed to is help bring these sectors together.
Laurel Neme: So what exactly is the AHEAD program?
SO: We 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.
Laurel Neme: Is that the first time that they really worked together that way?
Steve Osofsky: Yeah, I think that a lot of that convening wasn’t happening. A lot of the peace parks movement was driven by the conservation community, and I think the agricultural sector wasn’t often at the table when they needed to be, because of some of those historical tensions we’ve been talking about. And the last sector to be invited traditionally has been public health. These are not groups that have worked very well together. It’s not just in southern African – I should be very clear – we have the same issues here in the United States. Only relatively recently, in the wake of things like the monkey pox outbreak, and SARS, and now avian influenza and swine flu, have we really started to see within our own government good collaboration between the public health community – HHS and CDC, and USDA and USAID, the State Department, Department of the Interior. That type of collaboration is really relatively new wherever you go. We feel we have been a catalyst on that, and our focus has been in southern Africa, but today, I think in many ways the southern Africans are ahead of us here in the U.S., because things like transfrontier conservation have forced a collaboration that was long overdue. As we’ve seen again and again is many situations, it often takes a crisis to get people to rethink their approaches to problem-solving.
Laurel Neme: Can you talk a little bit about the peace parks movement because we keep referring to it. I wanted to back up and give a little history.
Steve Osofsky: I’m certainly not an expert on it, but I would say probably around 15 or maybe a few more years ago there was (and still is) the Peace Parks Foundation in South Africa who really started to talk about this vision for reconnecting wild areas. I’ll note that we collaborate with the Peace Parks Foundation. I think they have brought a lot of focus to the value of wildlife, as part of an engine of economic growth in sub-Saharan Africa. But the driver was conservation. I think at the time the livestock sector wasn’t necessarily seen as the stakeholder that it really was, and that was a bit of a problem early-on, I think, for peace parks to really get political traction. I think we’re well beyond that now. I do think the planning for land use change at the scale that transfrontier conservation implies is now happening within a context of cross-sectoral collaboration. But the original peace parks drivers were largely conservationists — with good intentions, but they weren’t thinking as cross-sectorally as they needed to be. Maybe it’s easier for me to say it in hindsight, though I was at some of those tables at the time and I felt this way. Part of my experience of listening to the vision at that time really did drive me to think about creating AHEAD because I was worried that, without a cross-sectoral approach, this potentially great idea- transfrontier conservation- would stumble. I think now that we’re collaborating and we’re bringing these sectors together, there is a much greater chance that good decisions will be made and transfrontier conservation will be successful where it can be, and in places where it doesn’t make social or economic sense, it won’t happen. And that’s of course okay too.
Laurel Neme: So where is AHEAD working?
Steve Osofsky: If you look at sub-Saharan Africa, there are right now 13 areas that are already transfrontier conservation areas or that have been designated as places where they would like to explore creating transfrontier conservation areas. If you add up these 13 areas, and this goes back to the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment that I was talking about earlier, the importance economically of wildlife, the area we’re talking about is about 120 million hectares. That’s about the same as New York, Texas and California combined, just to give you some sense of scale. We’re talking about a vast proportion of sub-Saharan Africa where the primary land use could be wildlife. So, we’re talking about a big impact. We are providing technical guidance basically wherever we’re asked and resources allow. We have to find funding for anything we do. We’ve gotten funding in the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Conservation Area from a variety of donors over the years, including the MacArthur Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, some funding from USAID, and others.
Most recently, we have gotten some support from USAID to help what could become the largest transfrontier conservation area, not only in Africa, but on the planet. Five countries have come together to create what’s called the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area, and it’s just really in the early stages. It’s where Angola, Namibia, Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe come together. If you add up the area they’re looking at, it’s about 400 thousand square kilometers. That’s about one and a half times the size of Great Britain. It’s vast. Right now, within that general area, there are at least 60 national parks and other types of wildlife areas–not connected necessarily but the vision is connectivity. It’s really the type of challenge that AHEAD was created to assist with, because if you flew over this area, you would see miles and miles of fences largely because of foot and mouth disease control. Some of the tools we were talking about earlier – looking at new ways to facilitate export agriculture, to facilitate getting beef out of southern Africa to Europe without necessarily requiring that level of fencing – offer extraordinary opportunities to reconcile this conflict.
Right now, under current policy, you really can’t create a transfrontier conservation area. Those fences will not be realigned. They will not be taken down at any point. And so, connectivity can’t happen. The only way it can happen is if we find new ways, from a policy point of view, to ensure safe production of beef, from a disease point of view, that would allow other tools besides fencing to be applied, so that corridors and historical migration routes could be restored. And again, in this part of the world, tourism is only growing and that’s what the leaders of these countries are seeing as part of their future.
Laurel Neme: Why is this multi-sectoral approach so important?
Steve Osofsky: 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.
The idea of creating transfrontier conservation areas is so antithetical to the history of region. That’s partly what makes it exciting. I think, if stakeholders get this right—if we can get these different sectors to the table, if we can facilitate and can continue to help bridge some of the language and technical gaps between the agriculture sector, the wildlife sector and the public health sector—I think the potential to transform the economy of the region is really there in a way that we haven’t seen in decades.
Laurel Neme: What’s involved in creating a transfrontier conservation area? Because you politically have to be working together and then physically you have to create those corridors – in this case it would be removing fences – but what all is involved?
Steve Osofsky: Yeah, to be fair I’ve been focusing largely on the animal health dimensions. But if you think about it, there are all kinds of ministries that have to be involved. You have customs and immigration issues. There are law enforcement issues. You’re basically talking about creating a connection that hasn’t been there in many cases in many, many years. And there are also revenue sharing issues. If we’re going to expand tourism and people are coming to a transfrontier area – if a tourist spends all their time in country A but not in country B, but they came because of the idea of a big area, does country B get a portion of those revenues? All those issues are on the table in those places and being discussed. So, there are political issues, there are economic issues, and then there are physical issues, as you said. Sometimes it involves modifying habitats or re-zoning. It may involve having people graze livestock in a different way. In some places it may involve essentially fencing livestock in, instead of wildlife out. We call that compartmentalization and it’s a way to enhance bio-security of livestock without necessarily cutting off a wildlife migration route. So there’s lots of on-the-ground work that needs to be done and lots of policy work that needs to be done.
Laurel Neme: Are there examples of where it’s already worked?
Steve Osofsky: We have transfrontier conservation areas in the world. Probably the most well-known in Africa is the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem between Tanzania and Kenya, which is centered around the migratory system driven by wildebeest, for example. So that’s an existing area where there isn’t a border fence and animals move across an international boundary and tourists come to both sides. It’s a very interesting example. It does have some problems, and there are some threats, very real threats to the Serengeti-Mara.
Laurel Neme: How about in North America?
Steve Osofsky: In North America too, we have shared conservation areas between the United States and Canada. And the peace parks movement has certainly expanded beyond southern Africa. I know that they’ve been interested in the idea of a peace park between North and South Korea, where land use could be focused on wildlife and potentially diffuse tensions. That’s where the term “peace park” comes through. It’s being looked at in places like Mongolia, Russia and China, and even in terms of places like Afghanistan and Pakistan. There are people who are looking at transfrontier conservation as a way to bridge problems that have persisted politically for many years, and I think in some places it might work and in some places it won’t. So, I don’t want my emphasis on the animal health dimension to belie the complexity of this type of endeavor.
Laurel Neme: Now, the animal health dimension can really scuttle the success of a transfrontier conservation area.
Steve Osofsky: Right. 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.
Laurel Neme: Have people started experimenting with some of these win-win opportunities? I’d love for you to talk again about the foot and mouth disease and what can be done, or what you’re experimenting with, in this region.
Steve Osofsky: Well, right now we are in the early stages of working with a whole range of partners from the different sectors to look at what’s called commodity-based trade.
Laurel Neme: What is commodity-based trade?
Steve Osofsky: Commodity-based trade is one potential tool that’s being evaluated. It’s a way of changing the way cattle are handled and beef is produced—all with existing tools. This doesn’t involve inventing any new methodologies, really, because it’s used in other parts of the world. If you are worried about foot and mouth, for example, and you run cattle through the right types of quarantine, if they have foot and mouth, you’ll be able to detect it. Beyond that, the way you handle meat after you harvest it from cattle—the way it’s aged, the way it’s deboned, the way it’s processed (lymph nodes removed, etc) – you can produce a very safe product from a foot and mouth disease point of view and from a food safety point of view.
Cattle herd in the Brazilian Amazon. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.
There’s sort of a double benefit here. Right now, countries that export beef to Europe, they’re not exporting a processed product really. The real value-added happens in the importing country. So, really, the exporting country is losing out on that economic benefit. If value-added processing occurs, say, in Botswana, and that meat can go to Europe in a more finished form, the producer can get a higher price per unit of production. That’s hugely important in terms of economic development. At the same time, if that value-added processing can be scientifically evaluated, through normal science-based food handling and safety standards—if it can be proven to be free of foot and mouth disease—then the justification for current approaches to disease control, some of these cordon fences, would really not be all that necessary any more. There may be certain circumstances where you still need fences for a variety of reasons, but you could theoretically still produce safe meat from an export point of view, and also open up some of these corridors to meet the transfrontier vision. And, again, the economic multiplier of having that type of land use diversification could be huge. And it would feed in very nicely to the development assistance goals of countries like the United States who are putting, under Secretary [of State Hillary] Clinton right now, huge emphasis on food security and economic growth in sub-Saharan Africa. We think it’s time for the conservation community and agriculture community to put their heads together on things like commodity-based trade and really exploit it for the benefit of African economic development.
Laurel Neme: So what’s stopping that from happening?
Steve Osofsky: The science is there. Now it’s a matter of, again, piloting it and getting political will to buy into it. I’m optimistic that if we’re patient and everybody works together and we develop those real partnerships among the donors, among the host country implementers including the private sector, and among NGOs like us and academia, etcetera, I think we can do this.
Laurel Neme: Let’s talk more about the implications of all of this for human health.
Steve Osofsky: Our very health is tied to this relationship. Many of the emerging diseases that we are seeing around the world are diseases that are jumping often from wildlife, either into domestic animals and then to people, or directly into people.
Laurel Neme: Tell me more about that – how these diseases are jumping and what kinds of diseases we’re talking about. We hear a lot about monkey pox and a whole host of diseases. I’d love to talk specifics about that.
Steve Osofsky: I’ll give you one of these “gee-whiz” examples: if you’ve heard of – Nipah virus –out in places like Malaysia. This is an issue, and I’m not an expert on this, where land use change has changed the ecology of the system and led to an emerging disease. This is a case where so much forest has been cleared and pig production has increased dramatically. What’s happened is that bats, who need trees to roost in and fruit trees, now find themselves in trees that are overhanging piggeries.
Laurel Neme: And what does that mean for disease?
Steve Osofsky: The secretions (like saliva on fruit), and urine and such, of the bats are released over the piggeries, and the bats are natural hosts of viruses, like Nipah virus. [So the virus] gets into pigs and gets into people, and it’s a fatal disease. That lack of understanding of the relationships between where we site agriculture, and where wildlife needs to roost, in this case, is a great example of a huge cost being born by our own ignorance, if you will.
Laurel Neme: Can you tell me about some other examples?
Steve Osofsky: Even look at what’s happened with the swine flu outbreaks. We’ve known for many, many years that we shouldn’t keep poultry and pigs together if we can avoid it, because influenza viruses easily cycle among us, birds and pigs. Pigs are a perfect mixing vessel for new viruses. They’re so much like us. And so, we’ve actually done very poorly in terms of even keeping tabs on the various influenza viruses that are in our pig production facilities at the same time that factory farming has become the norm and we have densities of farm animals that are extremely conducive to the spread of diseases compared to the ways that animals used to be raised historically.
Laurel Neme: Are there other examples of where we set up situations where these pathogens can mix so easily?
Animal furs being transported in Kashgar, Xinjiang, China, photo by Rhett A. Butler
Steve Osofsky: Another development that is relatively recent in its intensity is the harvesting of wildlife. If we go to Southeast Asia, whether you’re in Cambodia or Vietnam or China, and you look at these wet markets where wildlife is collected live and dead and mixed together, and with domestic animals, these are huge mixing bowls and huge opportunities for pathogens to jump species. This is where we have things like SARS jumping out. We have new pathogens arriving all the time because we’re giving them the opportunity to do so. The consumption of bushmeat alone is really what has driven the emergence of HIV-AIDS, which we now know came from chimps many decades ago because people butchered chimps and that’s when the virus had a chance to jump. The Ebola outbreaks that we continue to see in many places often come from people consuming gorillas who have picked it up. So, we’re working in Central Africa, for example, to raise awareness about this, creating economic opportunities related to things like gorilla tourism, and at the same time helping people understand that they’re better off not eating gorillas. It’s good for conservation, obviously, but it’s also good for public health.
Laurel Neme: Do you help to issue public health warnings about some of these potential diseases?
Steve Osofsky: We actually do wildlife surveillance and when we find dead gorillas in the forests, we can alert the public health community that a wave of Ebola is potentially about to occur, and by changing peoples’ behavior and the way they interact with wildlife, we can mitigate outbreaks of human Ebola.
There are examples like this all around the world—where we alter our behaviors or we alter habitats. We can either alter our behaviors for the better and mitigate the emergence of disease, or we can do things that are likely to exacerbate disease transmission. The choice is ours. The science is there. And we’re working very hard right now in all parts of the world to get people to think proactively about these relationships because our own health depends on it. The next emerging disease may be the one that we just aren’t able to beat back.
Laurel Neme: Here in the United States, what are some examples of these zoonotic diseases – when a disease has jumped from a wild animal to humans?
Steve Osofsky: Monkey pox is the prototypical example, and this is an issue that still isn’t really completely resolved. There’s a whole industry related to pocket pets and other exotic pets. In this case there were prairie dogs held nearby Gambian pouched rats, and this was related to the pet trade. The Gambian rats harbored the monkey pox virus, which jumped into the prairie dogs, which then jumped into the people who bought the prairie dogs, I think, at a swap meet out in the midwest. Now, hopefully that virus – monkey pox – has not gotten into the wild. When this hit the news, there was a concern that people were going to throw their prairie dogs out in the yard because they were afraid. That still might have happened. But, that disease jumped from a wild animal from central Africa to a semi-domesticated animal that was being used as a pet – in this case prairie dogs – and then into people.
Another example is the ongoing issue related to brucellosis in the American West, which is a livestock disease that then moved into the bison and elk of Yellowstone, and it is a zoonotic disease. Brucellosis or undulant fever is a disease that can affect people, and there’s been an ongoing conflict between livestock agriculture and the management of Yellowstone’s wildlife because of brucellosis.
So, there are issues all over the place. There’s a very interesting one that’s been documented on the West Coast related to toxoplasmosis. Researchers in California have found that sea otters are often affected and eventually die from toxoplasmosis. They believe it relates to the tons of cat feces that end up out-flowing into the Pacific. People have pet cats, and the toxoplasmosis gets into the water. It gets harvested by the food of the sea otters, by the shellfish, and then the sea otters eat it. Now there’s an effort to not have people flush cat feces down the toilet and to control the disposal of litter. Who would have thought we could have impacts at that scale? But there are so many of us that these things are all connected now. Unfortunately we often only ever figure it out after the fact. But I think we’ve been greatly sensitized to it recently, given all the outbreaks, including the obvious scare over bird flu, over H5N1. There are relationships between wild birds and poultry and people, and we’ve spent a lot of time and effort investigating those relationships in different parts of the world. By better understanding the relationship, you can then mitigate- through enhanced bio-security, through where you site your agriculture, through what kind of surveillance you do.
Laurel Neme: Can you tell me how this all worked with respect to the bird flu?
Man carrying chickens in the Deqin market, Tibetan Yunnan, photo by Rhett A. Butler
Steve Osofsky: 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.
Laurel Neme: Tell me more about this “One World – One Health” approach, and tell me how it relates to AHEAD- Animal & Human Health for the Environment And Development. What are its objectives?
Steve Osofsky: The Wildlife Conservation Society, among US-based international NGOs that work in conservation, […is] the only organization that actually has a veterinary program. We found that to be extremely advantageous because a lot of the issues that we’ve been talking about, related to conservation and development, have a health dimension. First of all, 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].
Meat sellers in China, photo by Rhett A. Butler
We started AHEAD at WCS back in 2002-2003. It was really our first “One Health” initiative, which we started in southern Africa. Since then, we’ve now launched a number of programs that take the same theme – the theme being looking at the nexus of wildlife health, domestic animal health, human health and environmental stewardship – and applying it in different situations. So, we had a program called GAINS – that stands for the Wild Bird Global Avian Influenza Network for Surveillance – and that was a program funded largely by USAID and the CDC and several other partners to look at wild birds and their role in and impact from H5N1 influenza. There was a big concern that wild birds were spreading this disease around the world, and we were brought in, in this case, to help evaluate that. We were concerned, from a conservation point of view, that wild birds were going to be blamed everywhere. This was happening. There were countries where the Ministry of Agriculture, instead of looking at the fact that they were importing infected day-old chicks from China across the world into their country, they were pointing their fingers at wild birds and saying, ‘Ah, the wild birds there are giving us this disease.’ Well, with some good surveillance we were able to demonstrate in certain cases that, in fact, that wasn’t the case. And it was poultry trade, often illegal poultry trade, which was often spreading this very dangerous disease. Now in some parts of the world, wild birds are definitely a component, and it’s important to know where and when.
We also have “One World – One Health” initiatives where we work in a specific country to bring the different sectors together. We’ve been doing that in Mongolia with great success, in great partnership with various parts of the Mongolian government. We have a lot of programs across Latin America, where our teams bring these different sectors together to think about how to improve conservation and development outcomes, how to deal with diseases like avian influenza, etcetera.
We’re seeing an increased demand. We’ve had a number of “One Health” conferences. We now see WHO (World Health Organization) has a “One World – One Health” initiative, and there are now “One Health”-focused organizations. We feel very good about the fact that we don’t have or need ownership over this concept. But we do feel we were very catalytic. The idea is a very old one – the idea of a relationship between veterinary medicine and human health and environmental stewardship. That’s not new.
Laurel Neme: What is new?
Steve Osofsky: 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, and I think that the AHEAD work was really part of what ignited that. I’m personally very excited about that and I want to continue to see different entities unrelated to WCS adopting this model because we think it’s got a lot of important applications.