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Cornell receives $35m gift for research at nexus of wildlife and health

African elephants

Research from the Cornell program is helping to restore and safeguard migration corridors for elephants in southern Africa. Image by Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay.

  • Our newfound global awareness that human health, animal health and the health of the planet are inextricably linked has underscored the importance of research at the interface of wildlife and health.
  • Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine has announced a donation of $35 million to support its work in this burgeoning field of research.
  • The Cornell K. Lisa Yang Center for Wildlife Health aims to use the funds to further its research on how disease interactions affect wildlife, domestic animal and human health, and translate its findings into policy and action to protect wildlife and wild places.

If there’s one field of research that speaks to humanity’s relationship with the natural world, it’s the interface between wildlife and health. Human alteration of the planet through deforestation, climate change, our globalized food system, and the legal and illegal wildlife trade has brought people, livestock and wildlife into unprecedented proximity, risking disease emergence and transmission that not only imperils human populations, but can also hasten the demise of threatened wildlife species.

The scope of study at this vital nexus received a big boost recently when Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine announced a gift of $35 million to support the Cornell Wildlife Health Center, a program founded in 2020 to address wildlife conservation challenges through a multidisciplinary approach centered around the One Health principle.

One Health recognizes that human health, animal health and the health of the planet are inextricably linked. With the well-being of each component crucial to the health of all, environmental stewardship underpins the approach. “So many conservation challenges are, in fact, One Health challenges,” Steven Osofsky, a professor of wildlife health and health policy at Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, told Mongabay in an email.

The new fund, announced Jan. 30, represents the largest ever donation to the program, which has been renamed to the Cornell K. Lisa Yang Center for Wildlife Health in recognition of the scale of commitment to planetary health from the donor, K. Lisa Yang, who is also a member of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology Administrative Board and on the advisory council of the K. Lisa Yang Center for Conservation Bioacoustics.

Canine distemper virus represents a new threat to already threatened tiger populations, having claimed the lives of tigers in parts of Russia. Image by Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay.

“We will utilize the opportunities this incredible gift provides to work on tilting the scales back toward the type of environmental stewardship we ourselves need to survive as a species,” Osofsky said. “Extinction is just a part of the story — the COVID-19 pandemic should have [prompted] global understanding of the fact that our own health, and that of the global economy, are intimately tied to how we treat the natural world … whether we are talking about saving wildlife, mitigating the global climate crisis, or preventing the next pandemic, we need to redefine our relationships with wild nature and our fellow species.”

Developing a “keen understanding” of how disease interactions affect wildlife, domestic animal and human health is integral to translating conservation science into policy and action, Osofsky added. “Our fundamental goal is to help humanity make more holistic, better-informed decisions, in terms of land- and ocean-use planning, public health policy and environmental conservation.”

The center will use the funds to continue its ongoing wildlife health programs and also launch new initiatives aimed at training the next generation of wildlife health practitioners through fellowship and grant opportunities, with an emphasis on multidisciplinary teamwork through partnerships in the U.S. and abroad.

“Conservation is clearly an ‘all hands on deck’ endeavor,” Osofsky said. “We work with farmers, economists and other social scientists, ecologists, local governments, national governments, multilateral agencies, NGOs, the private sector, and so on — we certainly don’t believe academia has ‘all the answers’ … it is about fostering meaningful partnerships, and recognizing that real ‘change for good’ often takes years.”

Shark on a coral reef
Sustaining aquatic ecosystem health is one aim of the Cornell program, including environmentally and economically important issues concerning sharks. Image by Tom Vierus / Ocean Image Bank

Among the achievements of the center since it opened in 2020 are efforts to secure transboundary migration corridors for the largest remaining population of elephants in Southern Africa by addressing livestock-wildlife conflicts, and investigations of canine distemper virus in wild tigers with a view to informing potential management responses.

“For many wild large carnivores, protected areas will be unable to secure their long-term survival, and we must accept a future of landscapes shared between people, their domestic animals, and wild species,” Osofsky said. Many people “depend upon livestock farming for their livelihoods, with disease issues at the livestock-wildlife interface often being of primary concern.”

Osofsky said that ultimately, viewing the protection of wildlife and wild places through the lens of planetary health, in which humanity’s well-being is a central pillar, might be our salvation.

“Given that (unfortunately) attempts at moral persuasion or ethical arguments about nature’s intrinsic value have largely failed to halt our degradation of what’s left of wild nature,” Osofsky said. “Perhaps our own enlightened self-interest will finally help us slow and ultimately reverse the obviously worrying trends we are seeing.”

Deforestation for palm oil
Deforestation and habitat loss brings wildlife, livestock and humans into closer proximity, risking the emergence and transmission of harmful disease. Image by Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay.

Carolyn Cowan is a staff writer for Mongabay. Follow her on 𝕏, @CarolynCowan11.

Disclosure: K. Lisa Yang is a Mongabay donor. Yang does not have any editorial influence at Mongabay and had no role in the decision to publish this story.

Banner image: Research from the Cornell program is helping to restore and safeguard migration corridors for elephants in southern Africa. Image by Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay.

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WWF report calls forests a vital public health solution

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