Trading Faces: Modern Wildlife Conservation Efforts Call for Better Trafficking Regulations to Ensure Animal and Human Health

Article excerpt


In the spring of 2003, three-year-old Schyan Kautzer lay in a central Wisconsin hospital for seven days with a high temperature, runny eyes and skin marked with pus-filled blisters. The disease--which doctors could not initially identify--came after the girl had been bit on the finger by a pet prairie dog. The prairie dog was a new addition to the family's 15-acre farm--and it, too, was sick. A few days later, Schyan's mother, Tammy, developed a fever and blisters that spread from a cat scratch. Researchers at a nearby clinic studied a skin sample and tissue from the prairie dog's lymph node and determined that the family members and prairie dog had been infected with a similar poxvirus. It was monkeypox, a disease typically found in African squirrels, rats and mice. Over the course of that year, nearly 100 people across the Midwest were diagnosed with monkeypox after coming in contact with infected prairie dogs.

Authorities traced the source of the sick prairie dogs to a wholesale pet store that also sold exotic African rodents. Many of the dozens of prairie dogs at the store were also ill--sneezing, coughing and underweight. The exotic rodents were consequently banned from the U.S. That outbreak offered a lesson on how diseases move from species to species, mutating in the process. It also highlighted problems arising from animal trade, and helped propagate a new field of research called conservation medicine, which seeks to identify these new diseases and find ways to prevent their proliferation across wildlife populations.

But U.S. scientists and federal agencies are grappling with how to regulate wildlife trade--and the sale of exotic and banned pets--to lessen the impact of diseases that cross from wild to domestic animals and then to humans, and how to win the cooperation of government, researchers and the pet industry before the next outbreak.

Zoonotic diseases--or those that jump from animals to humans--account for 75% of all emerging infectious threats, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The agency has even opened a center to plan for and monitor such outbreaks. The National Center for Zoonotic, Vector-Borne and Enteric Diseases estimates that approximately 60% of all human pathogens are zoonotic. Most of these diseases can be traced to areas where expanding human populations have pushed into surrounding ecosystems, increasing interaction among species.

Researchers highlighted these trends a few years back in a study published in the journal Nature. The article charted patterns of likely outbreaks and recorded unique diseases over the last 60 years. It found 335 such diseases in human populations between 1940 and 2004. The study noted that loss of habitat and human infringement into wildlife areas were both factors related to outbreak. It linked the peak incidence in the 1980s with the HIV pandemic, but noted that zoonotic diseases account for most of the emerging "events" or outbreaks, and most of these originate in wildlife. Socioeconomic, environmental and ecological factors all played a role in determining where disease outbreaks would happen. And the study called for better surveillance in order to identify disease hotspots in Africa and Latin America before they erupt.

Trafficking and Trade

Wildlife trafficking is most often depicted in media coverage of airport seizures--like the man in July 2010 who was caught in Mexico City as he attempted to smuggle 18 endangered monkeys from Peru under his T-shirt. But many animal-related disease outbreaks come as a result of legal trade. Animal trade is a robust business. In 2009, the U.S. Fisheries and Wildlife Department reported 140,984 total wildlife shipments, comprised of 146,734 mammals, 940,349 reptiles, 3,291,807 amphibians, 181,908 birds and 165,198,128 fish. Recent conservation news has highlighted disappearing numbers of threatened amphibians. …