"Doctor conservationists" opine that Jaguar conservation may actally hold the clue to preventing future pandemics like bird flu and HIV.
A new collaboration between a wildlife-protection non-profit and a teaching hospital has adopted the above message to protect jaguars, which are often labelled as "cattle killers" and are slaughtered on sight in Central and South America.
AdvertisementThe species is also at risk of declining genetic health as its habitat contracts and populations are cut off from each other.
"If the animals are forced to stay instead of travel, that can lead to a loss of fitness and create a cascade down the health ladder," National Geographic quoted Alan Rabinowitz, president and CEO of the big-cat conservation group Panthera, as saying.
He added: "Once that cascade has been set off, it has been shown through data to directly link to increases in disease among neighboring human populations."
He said that if the number of top-level predators such as the jaguar kept on declining, it could lead to a boom in prey populations, which would in turn encourages the spread of disease.
Some of those diseases could then become zoonotic, and jump from animals to humans, according to him.
In their effort to protect big cats, New York-based Panthera, in collaboration with the Mount Sinai Medical Center, is training doctors in the human-health benefits of saving the animals.
"The program is being formulated now, but we have high hopes for it," said Paul Klotman, chair of Mount Sinai's Samuel Bronfman Department of Medicine.
While cat experts from Panthera will teach at the hospital, medical students would get opportunities to administer health care in parts of the world where humans and wildlife often live under an uneasy truce.
Mary Klotman, director of Mount Sinai's Global Health and Emerging Pathogens Institute, said that one of the biggest aims of the new program was to give students a deeper understanding about the links between animal and human diseases.
"I think what we're doing is to try and introduce the concept more broadly into medical education, so that it's not just the high-level investigators that understand this interaction," said Klotman.
With the help of this unique training, the program's doctor-conservationists would be providing an incentive for local people to tolerate jaguars, said Panthera's Rabinowitz.
The work should boost efforts to establish so-called genetic corridors, paths of sheltered habitat that cross through human-populated areas to connect existing wildlife preserves.
"A genetic corridor can look like a complete human landscape. But if one jaguar or tiger can make it through that landscape to the next viable population, that single animal is enough to maintain the genetic diversity of the species as a whole," said abinowitz.