Trading Faces

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

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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. One common culprit is the spread of an amphibian fungal disease caused by the fungus Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis or Bd. In the U.S., Bd is linked to the North American bullfrog, whose legs are sold as a culinary item.

To illustrate the scale of the problem, researchers from the EcoHealth Alliance obtained importation data for three U.S. ports (San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York) from 2000 to 2005 that market frogs or frog parts. More than 28 million amphibians were imported to these ports during the time period studied, and 62% of them were infected with Bd. The data will likely impact future policy regarding amphibian trade, including a proposed ban on all amphibian trade unless the frogs are clear of disease

And illegal trade carries its own serious consequences. A pilot study that is part of Wildlife Conservation Society’s “One World One Health” initiative began tracking samples of wildlife and wildlife products transported through main entry points in 2008. As of April 2010, researchers had uncovered at least 14 species, including rodents, monkeys and apes. In chimpanzees and mangabeys imported for food—known as bush meat—there was evidence of two strains of simian foamy virus. The primates are both endangered and illegal to import. And simian foamy virus is a retrovirus is in the same family of diseases as HIV, the retrovirus that causes AIDS.

Although these viruses can infect humans, they are not yet known to cause disease. But it is generally known that HIV rose through human contact with nonhuman primates, says Nina Marano, veterinarian in the CDC’s quarantine branch. Just like HIV it may be able to infect people before they become sick, she says. “We want people to know that taking meat from the wild is bad for animals and bad for humans,” Marano says.

Problems with Regulation

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Wildlife trade has proven difficult to regulate—particularly because its regulation crosses several federal agencies. This split policing results in holes as to what each agency oversees and what diseases can be detected at the border. The CDC is in charge of anything related to human health, and the quarantine of imported monkeys, for example. The Department of Agriculture focuses on livestock imports, poultry and wild birds. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) is tasked with stopping smuggled wildlife and enforces laws regarding endangered species and exotic pets.

“There are gaps in regulation,” says FWS Senior Wildlife Inspector Sheila Einsweiler. She worked at the Los Angeles live port, has been involved in oversight for the inspection program and she’s worked with other federal inspection or regulatory agencies for more than a decade. She says livestock and domestic animal inspectors are not necessarily looking for zoonotic diseases. “There are a host of wildlife with no quarantine and there is always potential for another monkeypox situation,” she adds.

There isn’t a holding process that might weed out stressed and diseased animals. Other impediments to monitoring incoming animals are staffing constraints and limited scientific information about the potential for problems or certain illnesses when introducing animals or exotic pets. Even consultants to the huge pet industry and its large lobbying effort, note the lack of streamlined regulation as a problem.

“There are no comprehensive laws or approaches to monitor, report on or manage companion animal zoonoses,” states a paper led by Jamie Reaser, a senior consultant with the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council. “Even within a specific sector, wildlife management for example, thorough approaches to disease surveillance and management are lacking.”

The study notes that individuals working on issues relevant to companion animal zoonoses in the agencies are competent, but that they are hamstrung by government structures. It also cites unequal distributions of resources and lack of enforcement capacity.

EcoHealth Alliance is working to broaden the scientific knowledge base when it comes to identifying species and the pathogens they carry. But data recording is flawed, shipment numbers are inaccurate and current laws fail to keep tabs on the diversity of wildlife imported. “We are kind of stuck and don’t have much analysis of the myriad of diversity,” says Kate Smith, PhD, a researcher with the Alliance.

Legislation that failed to make it out of committee last year was supposed to help remedy some of the problems and modernize wildlife trade. The “Nonnative Wildlife Invasion Prevention Act,” introduced in the House, was intended to “prevent the introduction and establishment of nonnative wildlife species that negatively impact the economy, environment, or other animal species’ or human health,” according to its Congressional summary. But the measure failed to qualify how species should be handled. Researchers proposed a temporary “gray list” for animals needing priority risk assessment. Imported amphibians, for example, which might carry the fungus Bd, could be gray-listed for further evaluation.

More stringent regulations would also help to improve the county’s reputation for being a pushover when it comes to animal trade. Exotic animal importers recognize the lax U.S. oversight, says Peter Jenkins, vice president for U.S. government policy for Conservation International. He noted that the monkeypox outbreak was linked to rats legally exported to the U.S. “They sell to the U.S. because there are no rules and they can make money doing so,” he says.

Zoonotic diseases and their impact on wildlife and human health are gaining attention, but Jenkins finds that most people aren’t paying attention—except when there is a major outbreak, such as West Nile virus or monkeypox. “There is a lot of good research out there, but that does not affect regulatory [issues],” he says.

First Steps

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When the system does work, it can take years. The python propagation in the southern U.S. is one example. Pet owners that have released Burmese pythons in the Florida wetlands have unleashed an invasive species that is harming the local ecosystem and becoming a nuisance to property owners.

The giant snakes have adapted to the landscape. They are not poisonous, but they constrict their prey to death and can reach up to 26 feet long. The process to add pythons to a FWS list of “injurious wildlife,” along with eight other large constrictor snakes threatening the Everglades, began in 2006, and bans have only recently started going into effect.

Researchers at EcoHealth Alliance are emphasizing a grassroots education effort aimed at would-be pet owners. This past fall, the group announced a program called Pet Watch, a resource for potential pet owners who want to thoroughly investigate an animal before they purchase it. The program notes general information about the animal, its threat to native animals and any causes for concerns. Lastly, it gives a recommendation on whether it is a best, worst or fair pet choice.

Jenkins, who lobbies for tighter restrictions, insists that tougher laws are needed, even if they involve some compromise. He said that a new, more moderate bill could go further than the one stuck in committee. The held-up House bill (H.R. 669) failed to consider economic benefits of the trade, Smith has argued. One of her studies relates that: “Effective risk analysis would require participation from all stakeholders, including the pet industry, and would need to be quantitative, to incorporate recently published data, and to include cost-benefit analyses of the economic and social benefits of wildlife ownership and trade.”

How does allowing wildlife carrying potentially harmful viruses affect all industries where animals are involved? That’s a question Reaser of the pet industry would like to see addressed. “Smart business comes into the equation,” she says. The pet industry is estimated to be worth $48 billion annually (including animals, products, food, vet services and medications).

Better regulations may be good for protecting customers, but would require additional funding and staffing in agencies already on a tight budget, Reaser says. She proposes that pet stores work together to create a research and development system where they could identify how to keep pathogens away from pet populations.

The next step would be to create standards for the industry to avoid certain species’ importation. Above all, coordination of government agencies and dialogue with nongovernmental groups that track zoonotic diseases would help prevent future outbreaks, Reaser says. But whether there are new regulations, or there’s tweaking of the presently governing Lacey Act (which outlaws selling, transporting and purchasing illegal fish and wildlife), there needs to be a system of risk assessment for each species to get a handle on what exactly is coming through the ports, says Einsweiler. “We have to have the ability to go after zoonotic issues, and if we can’t go after them at the border then we are less likely to put something into effect,” she says.

Animals that are imported could put agency personnel at risk for diseases if they are held for long periods of time as authorities determine what exactly to do with them. “We don’t have the authority to immediately destroy them,” she says.

Facing the Unknown

Peter Daszak, PhD, is president of EcoHealth Alliance and has worked for years on collaborative projects that have evolved into modern conservation medicine efforts, including the amphibian decline and the impact of the West Nile virus. The field has grown substantially in the last 20 years. Studies now show where new diseases are most likely to emerge and can trace some viruses and pathogens to wildlife trade. But there is still work to be done.

“We don’t screen for SARS [severe acute respiratory syndrome caused by a pathogen in mammals and birds] or monkeypox, and those are spread through trade,” he says.

Any proposed policy faces a powerful pet industry, Daszak says. The trick is finding a compromise. “People who want to keep pets can do so without destroying the environment or spreading disease,” he says.

Ultimately, the biggest risks are the ones no one can predict. Animals that are not tracked to the species level make the creating of databases impossible. “We don’t even know what we are dealing with,” says Smith of EcoHealth Alliance. “We don’t know what the risks are and don’t know how to find solutions to these risks that we don’t know about.”

Part of this vast unknown was revealed during the monkeypox outbreak when a pet prairie dog in the middle of the country came into contact with exotic African rodents and then bit and infected a little girl. Authorities had to react to a situation they’d never encountered; one that may foreshadow more serious outbreaks to come.

“What else is out there?” Einsweiler asks, noting that it’s nearly impossible for agencies to prepare for the unknown, especially with regulations that prohibit only a few wildlife species from entering ports. “For the most part,” she says, “it’s ‘Come on in.’”

CONTACT: EcoHealth Alliance,

TRACI ANGEL is a health, science and environmental freelance journalist based in Kansas City.