Discovering more about wildlife disease

Discovering more about wildlife disease

#Taronga Zoo Sydney

Posted on 21st November 2017 by Media Relations

The Australian Registry of Wildlife Health (The Registry) is a small, dedicated research program of the Taronga Conservation Society that investigates wildlife health and disease. We are committed to the preservation of Australia’s biodiversity through increased understanding of the interaction between animals, the environment and disease causing agents. With the exception of the National Zoological Garden in South Africa, we are the only zoo based pathology program in the southern hemisphere.

In 2016, Jane Hall, the Wildlife Health Project Officer at The Registry, was a recipient of the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Fellowship, and recently took her studies overseas.

When people think of wildlife diseases of concern, the diseases which spring to mind usually include those that have garnered international press, such as Ebola, Avian Influenza, Swine Flu and SARS. While these are extremely important diseases due to their ability to cause explosive global pandemics, Australia has not been without its own list of endemic wildlife diseases of concern – including the zoonotic Lyssa and Hendra viruses, Chytridiomycosis, which has devastated our amphibian populations, and Tasmanian Devil Facial Tumour Disease, which has decimated our largest endemic carnivore.

The Registry has been key in the discovery and identification of numerous wildlife diseases, including tularaemia, leishmania, macropod babesiosis, macropod orbivirus, Bellinger River Snapping Turtle virus, and a novel bacteria threatening critically endangered reptiles on Christmas Island.

My fellowship was undertaken between May and July 2017, when I visited 23 organisations across South Africa, United Kingdom, Canada and the USA. During this time, I met with professionals spanning the entire gamut of the wildlife health industry, from the folks working in the field and laboratories, domestic animal and human health professionals, and program leaders and policy makers.

My main aim was to explore ways in which The Registry and the wider Australian wildlife health community could strengthen, concentrate, or explore ways to maximise prevention and management strategies for wildlife disease events.

I participated in a combination of structured interviews, job shadowing, tours and ‘chats’ to reach this objective. As each organisation employs a different strategy depending on financial and political constraints, immersion into each program was a useful tool to determine how each program truly operates.

I was also fortunate to have timed my visit to attend annual meetings of the Great Britain Wildlife Disease Surveillance & Garden Wildlife Health Project, and the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative, which brought wildlife health professionals from across each country together to one place for discussions about wildlife disease management. It was a unique opportunity to be able to meet with such a wide variety of wildlife disease professionals face-to-face.

While the management and control of wildlife diseases have no clear, one-size-fits-all solution, knowledge of the pathogens and diseases that can affect wildlife is crucial in reducing the risk to wildlife populations, domestic species and humans.  It quickly became apparent that all of the organisations that I interacted with during this fellowship face similar hurdles as we do here in Australia with regards to the dreams versus realities of how they would like wildlife disease surveillance to look. It is overwhelmingly reassuring, however, to know that Australia is doing ‘pretty well’ in terms of wildlife health surveillance, and while there are definite areas for improvement, that the Australian Registry of Wildlife Health is a very robust program in this space.  

The Churchill Fellowship has allowed me the opportunity to investigate how other wildlife pathology programs operate, and to also gather the ideas and tools to maximise the potential of the Registry in mitigating wildlife disease events in Australia for the benefit of our wildlife, animals and people.

To read more about Jane’s Findings, read her full report here. And to learn more about The Registry, visit the website.