Mary Pearl: Looking for Hot Spots

Mary Pearl is the president of Wildlife Trust, which makes connections between the health of ecosystems, animals and humans. She has been with the New York-based Trust since 1998, following a stint at the Wildlife Conservation Society. A Yale Ph.D., she is also an editor of the book Conservation Medicine, cofounder of the Consortium for Conservation Medicine, and an adjunct research scientist at Columbia University.

conservation medicine

E Magazine: How do we increase public awareness of the emerging science of conservation medicine?

Mary Pearl: For too long, the environmental movement has been perceived as an elitist, esoteric pleasure for the well-to-do who want to preserve scenic landscapes and don’t have to concern themselves with real problems. Conservation medicine demonstrates how healthy ecosystems are the basis for human wellbeing, and it can really engage people who didn’t see the relevance before. One risk we run is demonizing animals as dangerous. The education has to be quite accurate, and has to include the whole picture of land-use choices and disease emergence. Then people will understand that biodiversity and wildlife management are part and parcel of human health programs.

One solution commonly proposed to address disease outbreaks is to eliminate entire populations of the carrier animals. But is that a short-sighted answer?

In China under Chairman Mao, farmers very successfully eliminated sparrow populations that were consuming their crops, but then they were overwhelmed with insect blights.That’s a perfect example. We’ve found over and over again that when a species is eliminated, there are unanticipated consequences. Every organism is not harboring just one virus or just one parasite. So by eliminating a carrier species we may unwittingly be encouraging another virus to look for a new livestock or human host. We have to see the full picture. An example is pest control. Trying to target one species for elimination can also create new diseases. We can’t play games with ecosystem dynamics, and we can’t kill a hydra by cutting off only one of its heads.

The biggest hurdle for conservation medicine, it seems, is getting the disparate professionals—doctors, veterinarians, ecologists—to work together.

One divide I encountered early on was between veterinarians and physicians who look at each organism as a battlefield on which to fight disease, and public health officials and wildlife biologists who are more comfortable accepting that pathogens are an inevitable part of ecosystem function. It continues to be an interesting challenge to bring these two groups together. But as these emerging diseases are attracting more notice, people visit their physicians and instead of saying “I might have arthritis,” they’re saying, “Maybe it’s Lyme disease, monkeypox or SARS.” Physicians are going to be guided by the general public in terms of looking at ecosystem causes of disease in their patients.

What’s the Wildlife Trust’s long-term strategy for educating the public?

We have a duty to bring the results of our research to decision makers and the public. We also need to train professionals in this field. My vision is to set up master’s programs so public health scientists and wildlife biologists can get a degree in conservation medicine. We want to see public health departments hiring veterinarians. Our park systems and wildlife refuges should have public health officials as well, acting on the knowledge that we all exist in the same network of pathogens. We need an arsenal of public officials, increasing our observation of sentinel species to find hot spots of new disease emergence.