Taking a robust approach to minimize disease transmission between humans and wildlife


The threat of disease transmission from conservationists moving wildlife between habitats or in the wild needs to be urgently assessed in order to minimize the risks. Experts from the University of Birmingham are calling on local and national health authorities and wildlife managers to take a strong approach.

In a new article, published in Frontiers in veterinary sciences, researchers from the University’s College of Life and Environmental Sciences, working with Wildlife Impact and other industry partners, highlighted the issues using the example of displaced orangutans in Indonesia .

All three orangutan species in Indonesia are listed as Critically Endangered, and moving animals between habitats is a fairly common practice due to demands from agriculture, mining, and other natural resources. put pressure on the forests they inhabit. Interactions and conflicts between humans and orangutans sharing the same habitats also contribute to the complex issues that these rare species face across their range.

During the covid 19 pandemic, the team identified cases of released orangutans that had been in direct contact or near humans without any protective gear. In some cases, formerly captive orangutans have been released after long periods of contact and potential exposure to human disease.

The team’s findings suggest that there is a potential problem with the transmission of pathogens between humans and animals that must be properly understood and managed.

“Covid 19 has highlighted the risks of releasing captive orangutans into the wild, or moving them between habitats, but we have been concerned for several years about how these practices risk the transmission of pathogens such as that tuberculosis of orangutans exposed to human disease in populations of wild orangutans and other wildlife, ”explained study co-author Dr Steve Unwin. “While we can never eliminate all risks, our investigations have shown that commonly used mitigation measures are not consistently practiced or applied.

“If we don’t address this loophole, we risk humans acting as a reservoir to transmit diseases to endangered species which, if lost, contribute to the overall degradation of our environment. Although there has been a lot of attention in the scientific and popular media to the risk of disease transmission from wildlife to humans, the risk in the other direction (human to wildlife) is actually much more important. “

The team has developed a set of recommendations that can be used by health authorities around the world to minimize the risk of disease transmission. This includes:

  • Conduct a disease risk analysis for orangutan translocation, including identifying risks and agreeing on acceptable risk levels that will protect wild populations and other species, including humans
  • Improve pathogen surveillance
  • Put in place mitigation measures to reduce the likelihood of outbreaks, including sufficient PPE and limit the number of people present when animals are released
  • Refocus conservation efforts on finding alternatives to translocation
  • Conserve orangutans by enforcing laws protecting habitats and helping communities develop sustainable solutions to live in harmony with wild orangutans.

Analysis of disease risk is one way to reduce uncertainty about the spread of disease in populations and to identify data gaps. Although our study focused on orangutans, this approach offers viable solutions to reduce the risk of disease transmission in all species of wildlife. “

Dr Steve Unwin, study co-author


Journal reference:

Sherman, J., et al. (2021) Disease risk and implications for the conservation of orangutan translocations. Frontiers of veterinary science. doi.org/10.3389/fvets.2021.749547.


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