World Zoonoses Day commemorates the important work of Louis Pasteur, who on July 6th 1885 administered the first vaccine against rabies. This day is especially poignant in 2021 as we are still battling the detrimental effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, a presumed zoonotic disease that has wreaked havoc over the past year and a half. The National Center for Biotechnology Information classifies COVID-19 as an “emerging infectious disease of probable animal origin” (Haider et al., 2020). To date, there have been 184,000,000 reported cases and about 3,990,000 reported deaths worldwide. The effects of this disease are not just affecting humans however, it is also changing the face of wildlife conservation.
In additions to humans, nonhuman primates and some other animals are susceptible to the COVID-19 virus. This was made especially evident when reports of the gorilla troop at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park contracted the virus. Special precautions have even been taken to ensure the safety of captive great apes. The San Diego Zoo went as far as vaccinating some of their great ape species with a specially developed veterinary vaccine.
Zoonotic diseases in the conservation community are a serious concern, as they run the risk of completely derailing a multitude of important projects. Many of our project partners in Southeast Asia care for orangutans directly, whether they be orphaned or injured. This means that they are temporarily cared for by human caretakers and are susceptible to whatever diseases those humans carry. It is for this reason that some of our most recent grant recipients have used the funding to upgrade biohazard security at their facilities. For example Sintang Orangutan Center used a sizeable grant from OC to construct special quarantine enclosures for new and incoming orangutans to ensure minimal spread of foreign diseases. Additionally, the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme used its recent grant to fund COVID-19 screening tests to ensure health safety throughout their care facility.
The orangutan conservation community is giving special attention to zoonotic diseases this year at the annual Orangutan Veterinary Advisory Group (OVAG) workshop. Collectively, the veterinarians and healthcare staff of Southeast Asia care for the largest captive population of orangutans, yet they do this in the harshest of economic and environmental conditions. Topics for this year’s workshop will cover ape husbandry, rehabilitation, and healthcare management. Additionally, the workshop will give special attention to zoonotic diseases and how to address their occurrence in a myriad of settings. Finally, the workshop will also look at how to maintain healthy mental health practices in conservation settings, as burnout among veterinarians and healthcare staff in these care facilities is all too common.