Mary Pearl is the president of Wildlife Trust, cofounder of its Consortium for Conservation Medicine, and an adjunct research scientist at Columbia University. Wildlife Trust is a global organization dedicated to promoting innovative conservation science, linking ecology and health, and empowering lasting local conservation.

Monday, 9 Jun 2003


I never have typical weeks, and this is no exception. Will the sum of this week’s activities create a distorted view of Wildlife Trust? When I’m based at our home offices in New York, weeks do have one commonality — they are all frantically busy and fragmented. So by the time we get to Friday, you should know the range of Wildlife Trust’s work.

Being the president of a conservation organization calls on a variety of skills, among them envisioning program directions, advising staff scientists and administrators, motivating and responding to the volunteer board of directors, and searching, constantly, for funds to underwrite our programs. And that’s just looking inward. The reason we are in business, of course, is to advance our mission outward: to create a healthy world for people and nature by linking ecology and health through innovative science, guiding policy, and strengthening the abilities of local conservation leaders and their organizations on the ground, around the world. We have an expression at work — “let’s take it down to the ground” — and by that we mean that our priority is to maintain our connection to that mission in everything we do. It is easy for a growing organization to get caught up in distracting competitions or bureaucratic entanglements, and at Wildlife Trust, we want to maintain our focus on what is important and what brings us to careers in environmental conservation in the first place. Therefore, each day I try to make sure I have advanced our mission in some specific, tangible way.

Over the weekend, the Centers for Disease Control announced a U.S. outbreak of monkeypox, a rare virus related to smallpox that usually occurs only in rainforests in central and western Africa. Squirrels and rodents are the reservoirs for monkeypox virus, which from time to time affects people (and of course monkeys, where it was first described). It seems that people in the pet trade in Wisconsin imported a rainforest rat from Gambia, which turned out to be carrying the virus, and the unfortunate rat passed the disease to prairie dogs for sale. Worse, the sick animals were taken to a “pet swap” in Wisconsin, also attended by people from Illinois and Indiana. The result? A number of people who handled sick animals have contracted the disease, which is serious enough to kill up to 10 percent of the people who get it. In Africa, the virus doesn’t last very long within just human populations; people need to be re-infected from the reservoir of virus-carrying squirrels and rodents. The virus can be grateful that the pet traders so usefully seem to have provided a wild reservoir, the prairie dog, so that we can be assured that monkeypox may not just be a one-time guest, but instead may well be here to stay.

This morning, I read as much as I can find about the monkeypox, a member of the family of orthopox viruses, and think about how Wildlife Trust might respond to the issue. Emerging wildlife disease is a key area of work for our organization, and we have a team of wildlife veterinarians, epidemiologists, pathologists, and parasitologists who are already working on aspects of West Nile virus, fibropapilloma virus, and Nipah virus, all pathogens that have recently burst into human awareness. It is not your imagination: new and re-emerging diseases are occurring with increased frequency, and a good deal of them come from wildlife. What the news stories do not tell you is that these disease outbreaks are predictable and therefore somewhat preventable, if we systematically address the pathogen pollution that can occur in live animal markets, the exotic pet trade, unmonitored travel from outbreak areas, and intensified livestock operations that reduce animal immunity to wildlife disease. Our land-use choices also affect disease: We need to recognize that when humans carve up and then move into wildlife habitat, we force infectious agents to adapt to the new environmental conditions we have created. This often includes our own bodies as new hosts for old wildlife viruses.

Dami Buchori in the field with Javanese farmers. Fred Koontz, Wildlife Trust’s executive vice president, is at left.

Photo: Wildlife Trust.

My husband, Don, left on Saturday for meetings in Ecuador as chair of a task force on environmental sustainability for the Millennium Goals project of the United Nations. I’m working on a paper commissioned by the task force to list education and training programs in environmental sustainability around the world. My co-lead author, Indonesia-based Wildlife Trust Program Leader Damayanti (“Dami”) Buchori, and I have assembled over a dozen coauthors from nations in every corner of the world to help us analyze how a young person growing up anywhere — from Paraguay to Pohnpei — might access the tools to become a professional steward of the environment. The bottom line: Training needs do not match training opportunities. Training is easiest to find where the biodiversity isn’t, and the biodiversity is highest where opportunities and resources are scarce. Dami is going to the meeting to present our preliminary results. She has extensive experience with this problem in Indonesia.

As an Indonesian environmental scientist with advanced degrees from the U.S., Dami is a very rare resource, and is often overwhelmed with the demands on and need for her time, whether it is from a local professional colleague who needs her help to write a grant proposal in a format attractive to funders in the West, or from farmers who have come to rely on her research on reducing insect pests (without dangerous, expensive pesticides) through better management of native, natural insect predators. Dami’s innovative science merits international notice, and she, like so many other developing-nation scientists, should have more colleagues and more resources with which to build training programs similar to the ones she attended in the U.S. We both hope that the paper we are working on will lead policy makers to address this imbalance.

Juggling career and parenting.

Photo: Wildlife Trust.

I am not going to these meetings, and will instead keep working on drafts of the paper from here in New York. Don and I have another important collaboration — our two children, ages 15 and 20. Today is our son’s first day working as a volunteer at our local zoo. I’ll take him there on my way to work this morning. It seems our daughter, now studying in Brazil, has picked up our wanderlust, and our son has inherited our love of animals. Don and I juggle our schedules so that one of us is always at home: He will return on June 21, when I begin a two-week trip to Tanzania. That reminds me: This afternoon, I’m scheduled for typhoid and hepatitis immunizations. I’m going to Tanzania for two reasons: to meet with Patricia Moehlman, a Wildlife Trust program leader based in Arusha who is training a number of conservation professionals in Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Tanzania; and to motivate prospective and current Wildlife Trust members by experiencing with them, in the field, the phenomenal east African savanna wildlife.