Conservation Medicine: The Science and Practice of Ecological Health
American Association of Zoo Veterinarians Conference 2003
Alonso Aguirre, DVM, MS, PhD
Conservation Medicine Program, Wildlife Trust, Columbia University, Palisades, NY, USA


In recent years, the term conservation medicine has been used in several contexts within different scientific communities, national/international organizations and research groups. Last year the book Conservation Medicine: Ecological Health in Practice was published in an attempt to define a new discipline that links human and animal health with ecosystem health and global environmental change.1 This novel approach in the protection of biologic diversity challenged scientists and practitioners in the health, natural and social sciences to think about new, collaborative ways to address ecological health concerns in this deteriorating world. The objectives of this presentation are to concisely overview and update the concepts related to conservation medicine outlined in that book.

Conservation medicine is a transdisciplinary scientific field devoted to understanding the interactions among: (1) human-induced and natural changes in climate and habitat structure; (2) emergence of pathogens, parasites, and pollutants; (3) biodiversity and health within animal communities; and (4) health of humans. Conservation medicine has both scientific and applied elements, and many endeavors in this field combine aspects of both. Simply stated, conservation medicine is the science and practice of ecological health and is especially relevant in today's human­ modified landscapes, where habitat destruction and degradation and episodes of emerging human and wildlife diseases are increasing. In this context, ecological health is at the nexus of the fields of human health, animal health and ecosystem health. Conservation medicine embraces participation by scientists and practitioners in the fields of ecology; organismal, cellular, molecular, and conservation biology; toxicology; epidemiology; veterinary and human medicine; and public health. In addition, perspectives from the social and political sciences are fundamental in understanding the underlying causes of human-induced changes in climate, habitat, and the use of terrestrial and marine ecosystems. Although conservation medicine is a scientific discipline, it may provide the basis for political positions on the conservation and management of species and ecosystems. The hope is that once armed with the appropriate knowledge, public policymakers and scientists will proactively devise and implement epidemiologic strategies to better ensure ecological health.

Conceptually, conservation medicine is at the nexus of the fields of human health, animal health and ecosystem health. And yet, it is more than interdisciplinary because it represents an integration of knowledge between disciplines. The term transdisciplinary is being advanced to describe this intellectual trend.2 Conservation medicine requires professionals from diverse disciplines to work together in addressing the complex aspects of the intersection of health and the environment. In essence, conservation medicine is practiced through collaborations beyond the individual, the institutional, and the interdisciplinary levels.

In comparison to human and veterinary medicine, conservation medicine addresses the examination of ecological health concerns beyond the species-specific approach. Clearly, in some respects, human health holds a greater priority than the health of other species. To date, human medicine has been limited in looking at the health connections between species and the environment (i.e., ecosystem health). Human health intervention has been focused on the downstream effects of environmental impacts (e.g., health consequences of landscape changes or pollution emissions) rather than encompassing a preventive approach in looking at upstream events (e.g., prevention of massive ecological degradation or pollution prevention).1,3

There are no simple solutions to address global environmental problems. A multi-pronged strategy is required. By bringing disciplines together, conservation medicine can contribute to solving environmental problems by improving problem definition requiring new tools for assessing and monitoring ecological health concerns. Perhaps, incorporating aspects of environmental indicator studies with specific biomedical diagnostic tools can develop integrated ecological health assessment. Tools include the development of noninvasive physiologic and behavioral monitoring techniques; the adaptation of modem molecular biologic and biomedical techniques; the design of population level disease monitoring strategies; the creation of ecosystem-based health and sentinel species surveillance approaches; and the adaptation of health monitoring systems for appropriate developing country situations. Beyond monitoring and assessment is action. Improving medical and ecological education and the need for public policy development in promoting ecological health are fundamental goals of conservation medicine.1

Literature Cited

1.  I. Aguirre, A.A., R.S. Ostfeld, G. M. Tabor, C.A. House and M. C. Pearl (eds.). 2002. Conservation Medicine: Ecological Health in Practice. Oxford University Press, New York, 407 pp.

2.  Somerville, M.A. and D.J. Rapport (eds.). 2000. Transdisciplinarity: recreating integrated knowledge. EOLSS Publishers, Oxford, UK. 272 pp.

3.  Tabor, G.M., R.S. Ostfeld, M. Poss, A. P. Dobson, and A.A. Aguiree. 2001. Conservation biology and the health sciences: defining research priorities of conservation medicine. In: M.E. Soule and G.H. Orians, (eds.). Research Priorities in Conservation Biology. 2nd Edition. Island Press; Washington, D.C. Pp 154-173.


Speaker Information
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Alonso Aguirre, DVM, MS, PhD
Conservation Medicine Program, Wildlife Trust
Columbia University
Palisades, NY, USA

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