Wildlife health is essential for life on Earth
The survival of humans, animals, and plants depends on the health of their ecosystems. Bats and bees are essential pollinators, small mammals maintain soil health, coral reefs produce oxygen and capture carbon, fruit-eaters disperse seeds, and predators help control the populations of other species. Ecosystems are only as healthy as the wildlife that lives within them and require rich biodiversity to thrive.
Wildlife is a valuable asset for many communities across the world, supporting livelihoods through the provision of income, whether it be through tourism or as a source of food. Importantly wildlife has a positive effect on human well-being, contributing to education, physical and mental health, social values, culture and spirituality.
Humans and domestic and wild animals share their ecosystems with numerous micro-organisms. Many provide essential life-sustaining support, but some are harmful and may cause diseases in humans or animals and disrupt the ecosystem balance.
During recent years, the increasing number of emerging disease events has been linked, or even blamed on wildlife. However, human activity, along with factors such as climate change, wildlife trade, deforestation, and certain farming practices are also major forces behind disease emergence. Animals and biodiversity can often be the forgotten victims of disease outbreaks.
For decades, the World Organisation for Animal Health has strived to improve animal health, including protecting wildlife health. We recognise that the health of humans, animals (both wild and domestic) and ecosystems are interdependent. To protect one, we need to value them equally.
As we share a collective responsibility to wildlife, we collaborate with multiple sectors, such as agriculture, conservation, public health, and the environmental sector, to implement our Wildlife Health Programme.
The biggest threat to 72% of wildlife is overexploitation, with most pressure from hunting, fishing or forest logging.
of the crops that provide 90% of human food in 146 countries are pollinated by bees
is the estimated agricultural impact for the decline of insectivorous bats. These bats are critical predators of crop damaging insects.
Of the 60 of emerging infectious diseases that have an animal origin or reservoir have a wildlife origin
human diseases originating from pathogens in wild animals have become important to human health in the past 60 years
Promoting Wildlife Management
Wildlife, by its very nature of being wild, is not easily monitored for diseases, and when resources are limited, countries prefer to focus on the more manageable livestock or aquaculture health. Those responsible for wildlife management, often called ‘Wildlife Authorities’ can be assigned to different ministries, such as the environment or forestry, severed from national Veterinary Services who are responsible for animal health.
Wildlife authorities and environmental sector professionals that oversee wildlife population management and biodiversity conservation often do not have the skill set nor the official mandate. Even in cases where wildlife falls under the direct responsibility of Veterinary Services, this sector can still lack the necessary regulation, capacity and resources, to address wildlife health issues effectively. As a result, wildlife health can often fall through the cracks.
For better wildlife management, countries need thoughtful multisectoral collaboration frameworks. Solid collaboration and coordination between the wildlife, environmental and veterinarian sectors are key to good wildlife management, and ensure that wildlife, ecosystems, humans and domestic animals alike, can have a sustainable future.
Understanding Animal Disease Surveillance Systems
A well-designed animal disease surveillance system allows for the early detection of health threats. Preventive action and early reaction to outbreaks could contain dangerous diseases before they cause damage and serve to preserve the health of animals and humans alike.
In several countries, disease surveillance systems for domestic and wild animals are managed separately, even though microbes can jump from one to another. Having a more holistic approach, with real-time intelligence sharing for both types of animals in one surveillance system is key. By doing so, we could increase our understanding on how microbes move between species and ecosystems, and on how to determine and predict future outbreaks in animals.
Varied stakeholders at multiple levels can be involved in disease surveillance, which can be conducted in two primary ways.
The investigation of sick or dead wild animals which is subsequently reported to relevant authorities.
Or, a more targeted investigation of a specific disease or specific animal population may also be undertaken.
Both methods require solid collaboration between veterinary and wildlife authorities to ensure timely communication on the appearance of microbes. This ensures that surveillance systems are operating accurately and effectively to prevent, detect and respond to outbreaks of disease.
The World Organisation for Animal Health is the leader for animal health surveillance systems. For the past century, we have been collecting international animal health data. Our platform WAHIS, the World Animal Health Information System makes available to the international community, the information on animal diseases, including those in wildlife, reported by Member Countries and territories. Learn more about what actions we are taking to improve wildlife health management and disease reporting through our Wildlife Health Programme.
Spillovers of disease between species can go completely unnoticed by the scientific community until a larger outbreak occurs, partly due to the division of animal disease monitoring systems, and the separation of surveillance systems for animals and humans. In line with its mandate, the World Organisation for Animal Health (WOAH, founded as OIE) is leading the change to highlight the value of wildlife health surveillance, and through a One Health approach, ensure its incorporation into national and international health strategies as it does for livestock health.
Wildlife Health Programme
In 2020, WOAH expanded its work in wildlife health and invested itself in promoting the growth of surveillance systems for wildlife health at regional, national and international levels, and advocating Members to revaluate the importance and visibility given to wildlife health in their countries. Essentially, through its strategic vision outlined in the Wildlife Health Framework, this Programme promises to:
Guide Members in their use of One Health strategies at national level to help manage the risk of disease emergence at the human-animal-ecosystem interface, while uplifting the value of wildlife, and the need to protect, rather than vilify, wildlife in disease emergence scenarios.
Support the growth of political, policy and scientific enabling environments, so that Veterinary Services can effectively run wildlife health monitoring, surveillance and management systems in collaboration with their institutional partners.
Global Disease Surveillance on Wildlife
For a century, the World Organisation for Animal Health has managed repositories for animal health disease monitoring data from its Members. By providing a common tool through WAHIS, that is homogenous across countries, and founded on a basis of shared definitions and standards, we ensure that reporting is useful and accurate. With this data, we provide an almost real-time picture of the status and evolution of targeted animal diseases.
Currently, health surveillance systems are particularly successful for the monitoring and reporting of illnesses in domesticated animals, such as livestock, because animal handlers and veterinarians are trained to recognise diseases in these animals and have the tools necessary to do so. Wildlife however, by their very nature is free to roam and inhabit remote areas where attempts for regular monitoring remains challenging. In addition, disease diagnostic tests are not always adapted to wildlife species, and the needed stakeholders for proper surveillance are more wide-ranging than for livestock, including for example, hunters, wildlife biologists, conservation managers, and more.
The Wildlife Health Framework aims to identify and promote solutions for more effective monitoring and early detection systems through the integration of wildlife components. Our goal is that surveillance of wildlife is considered equally as important as efforts made for domestic animals. Identification of risks detected in wildlife early ensures timely intervention strategies reducing the risk of disease spread to other animals or people or impacts to wildlife themselves.
Reference Centres providing wildlife health expertise
WOAH is helping develop more rapid and effective diagnosis processes for wildlife diseases. Our global network of Reference Centres is the core of our scientific excellence. We promote international collaboration and offer scientific expertise and technical support to our Members. The WOAH network of expertise included two forms, which may overlap:
Focus on the scientific and technical assistance for specific diseases, including wildlife disease.
They provide expert advice on disease diagnostics and control methods according to their speciality, some examples include:
Provide generalised support and expertise on broad animal health topics.
They focused on the speciality of wildlife health and biodiversity consult on various theme, including: wildlife health, climate change and biodiversity, specific wildlife diseases, and the drivers of disease emergence.
As a part of the Wildlife Health Programme, the WOAH has been developing a network of Collaborating Centres specialised on wildlife health and biodiversity from the seven pre-existing Centres. We aspire to create a strong, healthy partnership between Collaborating Centres to coordinate work on wildlife health topics and synergise workflows. This will help the Members and international community strengthen risk management of diseases at the human-animal-ecosystem interface, and improve surveillance systems, early detection, notification and management of wildlife diseases.
Wildlife health in the field
Through the lens of our Wildlife Health Programme, we work with countries to build their national capacities to monitor animal diseases, and encourage One Health partnerships between different government institutions.
One way we achieve this is through our network of National Focal Points for wildlife. Their role is to offer expertise to their Delegate and advise on wildlife health in their country, including reporting WOAH diseases in wildlife in the WAHIS system. They also form networks of wildlife experts within their countries and communicate with country level partners and institutions, such as national Veterinary Services and wildlife authorities.
The WOAH also has dedicated regional projects and existing programmes that provide more in-depth support Members and Veterinary Services to address wildlife health surveillance and management.
Laboratory Twinning Programme
An initiative that improves wildlife health by encouraging collaborations between Reference Laboratories and outside laboratories from all over the world to improve their disease diagnostic capabilities.
The EBO-SURSY Project builds national and regional capacities to monitor and diagnose animal diseases
No organisation can protect wildlife health alone.
A complex subject, it requires the expertise of veterinarians, conservationists and wildlife biologists, wildlife managers, epidemiologists and disease experts, amongst other specialities.
For this reason, the World Organisation for Animal Health partners with specialists across the world, to bring our expertise on disease surveillance and management to the forefront of the wildlife health sector.
While our partnerships are vast, here are example of how we are working with ours on common goals:
WOAH partners with The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) to offer our health expertise to complement their extensive work on ensuring the international trade of wild animals does not threaten species survival. This includes supporting training exercises and capacity building, as well as promoting networking between CITES contact points and the National Focal Points for Wildlife. Together, we are also working together on finding solutions to the complex issue of the international shipment of laboratory diagnostic samples of CITES listed species.
In collaboration with the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), WOAH works on ecosystem health, specifically on the topics of biodiversity, invasive species and ecosystem management. We collaborate on risk management strategies through the publication of recommendations, and the identification of specific disease risks for endangered species through their Red List.
As a global leader of animal health, the OIE also has partnerships with other organisations to focus on specific diseases that appear in wildlife. OIE is involved in The Convention of the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS)’s scientific task force on Avian Influenza and Wild Birds, which includes other stakeholders such as FAO, UNEP, WHO, EcoHealth Alliance, and more.
The WOAH is also a proud member of the Collaborative Partnership on Sustainable Wildlife Management (CPW), a partnership of 14 international organizations with mandates and programmes to promote the sustainable use and conservation of wildlife resources.
The World Organisation for Animal Health relies on the latest scientific expertise to develop standards, guidance and recommendations for professionals to use, to protect and manage wildlife health.
Animals in the wild are both targets of and a reservoir for pathogens capable of inflecting domestic animals and humans. They can both transmit diseases, but also can fall victim to them. It is vital to improve our knowledge of the diseases present in wildlife and of the ways they can be transmitted to and from domestic animals and humans. As the scientific community continue to grow our understanding on these issues, we can improve the appropriate control measures to protect the health of all.
Working Group on Wildlife
Created more than 25 years ago to advise on health problems relating to wild animals, the Working Group on Wildlife has been working extensively with other experts during the COVID-19 pandemic to better understand the origins of the virus and to enhance the capacity of countries to respond to the crisis. The group has also called for action to reduce the risk of future spillover events.
International Standards focused on wildlife
As the cornerstone of WOAH’s authority for animal health, International Standards are used by Veterinary Services to set up measures for the early detection, reporting and control of pathogenic agents, and for preventing their spread. This ensures the safety of international trade in animals and animal products, and avoids unjustified health barriers to trade.
While Standards address the health of animals, both domestic and wild, holistically, there are also a few chapters specifically dedicated to wildlife health:
Manual of Diagnostic Tests and Vaccines for Terrestrial Animals
Principles and methods for the validation of diagnostic tests for infectious diseases applicable to wildlife
Guidelines for improving wildlife health
To support the implementation of its International Standards, the WOAH develops detailed guidelines that provide practical support to national Veterinary Services, including on wildlife health.
In the context of better identifying, assessing and managing disease risks to and from wildlife, the WOAH in collaboration with IUCN produced the Guidelines for Wildlife Disease Risk Analysis and a Manual of Procedures for Wildlife Disease Risk Analysis.
Most recently, in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, the WOAH in collaboration with IUCN, produced the Guidelines for Working with Free-Ranging Wild Mammals in the Era of the COVID-19 Pandemic to help Members adopt best practices to prevent virus transmission between animals and humans. In the same context the WOAH has produced the “Considerations for sampling, testing, and reporting of SARS-CoV-2 in animals” to support Members in sharing useful information on the occurrence of SARS-CoV-2 in animals including wildlife.
In addition, the WOAH has a number of products which may help animal health professionals work to protect wildlife health, including:
Technical disease cards
To support Members identify, manage and report non WOAH-listed diseases affecting wild animals.
Wildlife Health Survey Report (2020)
In which WOAH Members identified standards, practical guidance and trainings which the WOAH could provide to improve wildlife health in the field.
WOAH training activities for wildlife health
Those who work to protect wildlife health, or advise on wildlife health in their country, such as National Focal Points for wildlife, can benefit from WOAH’s dedicated training manuals on various topics of wildlife health and disease control.
Current Communications materials
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A rapid review of evidence on managing the risk of disease emergence in the wildlife trade.pdf – 1 MB See the document
Wildlife Disease Situation
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How does community-based surveillance work?.pdf – 135 KB See the document
Peer-reviewed research using WOAH wildlife health reference data
Smith et al (2017) – Wildlife hosts for WOAH-Listed diseases: considerations regarding global wildlife trade and host-pathogen relationships. Veterinary Medicine and Science, 3(2), 71-81
Machalaba et al (2021) Wildlife conservation status and disease trends: 10 years of reports from the Worldwide Monitoring System for Wild Animal Diseases. Sci Tech Rev.
Jiia B et al (2020) Validation of laboratory tests for infectious diseases in wild mammals: review and recommendations. Journal of Veterinary Diagnostic Investigation.
Jebara B et al (2016) WAHIS-Wild and its interface: the WOAH worldwide monitoring system for wild animal diseases. Vet Ital 52 (2016): 91-100.
Fanelli et al (2022) Sensitivity of an international notification system for wildlife diseases: A case study using the OIE‐WAHIS data on tularemia. Zoonoses and Public Health.
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