Ker Than in New York City
for National Geographic News
February 16, 2009
Jaguars and other big cats can protect humans from the rise of future pandemics akin to HIV and bird flu.
That's the message freshly trained "doctor conservationists" will be taking into the field as part of a new collaboration between a wildlife-protection nonprofit and a teaching hospital.
In Central and South America, jaguars are often labeled as "cattle killers" and are slaughtered on sight. The species is also at risk of declining genetic health as its habitat contracts and populations are cut off from each other. (See wild jaguar photos.)
"If the animals are forced to stay instead of travel, that can lead to a loss of fitness and create a cascade down the health ladder," said Alan Rabinowitz, president and CEO of the big-cat conservation group Panthera.
"Once that cascade has been set off, it has been shown through data to directly link to increases in disease among neighboring human populations."
Curing and Educating
A decline in top-level predators such as the jaguar can lead to a boom in prey populations that encourages the spread of disease.
Some of those diseases can then become zoonotic, jumping from animals to humans. (Read related news about decoding deadly variants of the bird flu virus.)
HIV, West Nile virus, and avian influenza, for example, are "reemerging diseases which have always been in the environment, but [until recently] they've been kept in check and didn't bleed over into human populations," Rabinowitz said.
As part of its broader efforts to protect big cats, New York-based Panthera has partnered with the Mount Sinai Medical Center to train doctors in the human-health benefits of saving the animals.
"The program is being formulated now, but we have high hopes for it," said Paul Klotman, chair of Mount Sinai's Samuel Bronfman Department of Medicine.
Cat experts from Panthera will teach at the hospital, and medical students will have opportunities to administer health care in parts of the world where humans and wildlife often live under an uneasy truce.
A major goal of the new program is to give students a deeper understanding about the links between animal and human diseases, said Mary Klotman, director of Mount Sinai's Global Health and Emerging Pathogens Institute.
"I think what we're doing is to try and introduce the concept more broadly into medical education," Klotman said, "so that it's not just the high-level investigators that understand this interaction."
Armed with this unique training, the program's doctor-conservationists will be providing an incentive for local people to tolerate jaguars, Panthera's Rabinowitz said.
"Almost all of the local communities that we interview and ask, What do you need?, two of the top answers have been, Better education for my children and better health for my family," he said.
"The affiliation with Mount Sinai helps with the health part."
The work should boost efforts to establish so-called genetic corridors, paths of sheltered habitat that cross through human-populated areas to connect existing wildlife preserves. (Read more about creating safe passage for jaguars in National Geographic magazine.)
Panthera's Jaguar Corridor Initiative would link approximately 90 distinct jaguar populations through a network of paths in Central and South America.
The organizations Tiger Corridor Initiative will attempt to do the same thing in Southeast Asia.
"A genetic corridor can look like a complete human landscape," Rabinowitz said.
"But if one jaguar or tiger can make it through that landscape to the next viable population, that single animal is enough to maintain the genetic diversity of the species as a whole."
Learn more about big cats and Big Cat Rescue at http://www.bigcatrescue.org