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The role of veterinarians in the conservation of avian species.

The biodiversity crisis is often reported in the news today. As wildernesses become less wild, wildlife species become less present in the remaining wild spaces. Biodiversity is in decline. In fact, the rate of extinctions is currently estimated at 100-1000 times above the pre-human "baseline normal" levels, which has led many to propose that we are in a period of the sixth great extinction. The difference between this sixth extinction period and the previous 5 is that species are going extinct predominantly due to anthropogenic--human driven--impacts. The extinction of species is often related to habitat loss and degradation, wildlife trade, invasive species, and, in a growing number of cases, disease. Today 12% of bird species are threatened with extinction. That is 12%! Veterinarians in private practice (companion, exotic, and poultry), rehabilitation centers, zoological institutions, government agencies, and nongovernment conservation organizations work with avian patients. In this age of increasingly complex threats to the long-term conservation of endangered avian species and media coverage of zoonotic diseases with links to birds (eg, avian influenza, West Nile virus), the roles that veterinarians have in the care for individual patients and flocks, human health, and avian conservation are complex and variable.

I have invited 5 health and conservation professionals working in the field of avian health and conservation to discuss some of the hot topics in avian conservation and the role of veterinarians in this field. Participants are Christine V. Fiorello, DVM, PhD, Dipl ACZM, Response Veterinarian, Oiled Wildlife Care Network, Wildlife Health Center, School of Veterinary Medicine, University of California, Davis, Davis, CA, USA; J. Jill Heatley, DVM, MS, Dipl ABVP (Avian), Dipl ACZM, Associate Professor, Zoological Medicine, College of Veterinary Medicine, Texas A&M University, College Station, TX, USA; Kathryn P. Huyvaert, PhD, Assistant Professor, Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, CO, USA; Peggy Shashy, DVM, Animal Medical Clinic at Sawgrass, Ponte Vedra Beach, FL, USA; and Kristine M. Smith, DVM, Dipl ACZM, Associate Director, Health and Policy, EcoHealth Alliance, New York, NY, USA. I hope that by hearing their perspectives, each of us may be able to more fully consider our roles to ensure the long term conservation of avian species.

Sharon L. Deem, DVM, PhD, Dipl ACZM, Guest Editor

Question: What are the most significant challenges threatening the conservation of endangered avian species?

Dr Fiorello:

This varies greatly by species, but habitat destruction, disease, climate change (which may cause habitat destruction and increase vulnerability to disease), and hunting/collection for the pet trade are major threats.

Dr Heatley:

A number of threats to avian conservation still exist and include lack of funding for determination of health status in the existent populations in the wild, lack of funding for conservation of land and habitat associated with these species, and lack of education of coexistent human populations regarding local species. There is also lack of cooperation and dissemination of knowledge between many groups working toward the same goals on similar species. Conservation medicine initiatives working on avian species are often as fragmented as the landscapes in which the species exist.

Dr Huyvaert:

Habitat loss and degradation, I think, pose the most severe challenges to the conservation of avian species, particularly for narrow habitat specialists.

Dr Shashy:

The most significant challenges threatening the conservation of endangered species are primarily loss of habitat, destruction of habitat, and the increase of predation by invasive and introduced species of animals. Other challenges are natural and manmade disasters such as the recent BP oil spill. Climate change and human activity can also create challenges.

Dr Smith:

Habitat loss is the primary threat to many endangered avian species. This challenge is especially complicated in migratory birds, for which we often do not have adequate understanding of their resting needs and locations. Illegal trade in wild birds is another major concern for many avian species, the scope and depth of which is also poorly understood.

Question: What are the most significant disease issues that threaten the conservation of avian species?

Dr Fiorello:

Avian influenza is a concern because worries about human disease and poultry may result in culling of wild species. West Nile virus may still threaten some species in Latin America, and, of course, Plasmodium may further impact native Hawaiian birds. Although not an infectious disease, lead toxicosis is a major problem for some species, and of course diclofenac toxicosis has been devastating to Old World vulture species. As climates changes, the range of vectors may change and diseases that were not a threat to certain species may become threats. Predicting how, when, and where these changes occur and what the impacts on species will be is extremely difficult.

Dr Heatley:

Realistically, I think these issues are still yet to be determined for many avian species. Avian influenza and West Nile virus are often touted as public health concerns but they have had little impact on most endangered or threatened species of birds. I think as we see increased land use change, continued habitat fragmentation and loss, and increased toxins in the environment, we will see diseases emerge but it will likely be on a case by case basis. While most diseases have little effect, I can think of a few examples where disease is limiting some species that are already in serious endangerment of extinction such as proventricular dilatation disease in Spix's macaws, lead toxicosis in the California condor, and diclofenac toxicosis in vultures in the Indian subcontinent.

Dr Huyvaert:

I think that the most significant disease issues threatening the conservation of birds come from the impacts of invasive species. Introduced or invasive bird species might introduce exotic parasite species to which native hosts are immunologically naive, leading to emerging infectious diseases that may lead to the rapid decline--or even extinction--of the native wild bird species. These exotic parasites may also contribute to shifts in the composition of the native species' parasite communities, an impact whose ecological effects we are just now starting to uncover.

Dr Shashy:

Vector-borne diseases such as West Nile virus and malaria may be the most significant diseases threatening avian species. Other common diseases are avian poxvirus, avian cholera, botulism, psittacosis, and histoplasmosis. Parasitism and malnutrition can also contribute to high morbidity and mortality rates of endangered avian species.

Dr Smith:

Although specific diseases will vary by host species and location, emerging and re-emerging vector-borne diseases (such as poxvirus and avian malaria) are spreading to new areas through animal trade and vector introductions and range expansion due to climate change. Such diseases are easily spread and can prove detrimental to naive avian populations. In addition, misinformation surrounding emerging infectious diseases such as in the case of the H5N1 avian influenza pandemic can result in conservation threats when wild birds are blamed and their habitats destroyed in response to outbreaks in domestic birds.

Question: Do you think that the trade in live animals is a challenge to the conservation of avian species?

Dr Fiorello:

In some cases, yes, but this probably has less impact than habitat destruction and other threats. Many New World psittacine species are captured from the wild in large numbers for the pet trade in their home countries, and many animals die during the capture and transport. Disease transmission and emergence, especially in Asian markets, is certainly a concern but this is associated more with trade in domestic species such as ducks and chickens.

Dr Heatley:

I think that trade in live animals is still a concern for conservation. However, the closure of importation of exotic birds in Europe and the United States has reduced this threat. However, one cannot downplay the significant threat of the eastern markets as well as the local markets where birds are still sold as pets and in some communities where wild bird species are often eaten as delicacies.

Dr Huyvaert:

Yes; it seems to me that the risks involved in the trade of live animals, particularly trans-globally, pose important challenges to the conservation of birds because we often do not fully know what sorts of parasites or pathogens might be coming along with the live animals. We are also not always aware of the potential ecological impacts a traded live animal might have in its new home; these impacts might be as obvious as predation on native species to subtle effects such as exclusion of a native species from a niche in a specialized habitat.

Dr Shashy:

Yes, the illegal trade in live animals increases the decline in wild populations and increases inbreeding of species, which can cause increased susceptibility to diseases. The end result may also include potential for disease transmission to other species of animals and to humans. Wild caught species have increased morbidity and mortality rates after capture. Additionally, captive breeding can increase the gene pool for endangered avian species. However, because of the poor economy, pet bird ownership is declining. My fear is the release of abandoned avian species into the wild which can lead to competition for nesting sites and increased disease prevalence.

Dr Smith:

The illegal wildlife trade is one of the largest threats to the conservation of endangered avian species. It is estimated that millions of live birds are involved in the global trade every year. In fact, the illegal trade in wildlife and wildlife products has been identified by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature as the main threat to survival for 37% of endangered or threatened bird species.

Question: Do you think that bird pet ownership is a good or bad thing for the conservation of avian species?

Dr Fiorello:

If we are talking about conservation and not considering animal welfare, then ownership of birds in the United States (and other countries which prohibit wild caught birds from being imported) probably increases awareness of the species' plight in the wild and may aid conservation efforts somewhat. However, where pet birds are largely taken out of the wild, the pet trade has an obvious negative impact on conservation and may in fact be a significant threat to some species. When welfare considerations are added into the mix, pet bird ownership is hard to justify.

Dr Heatley:

In general, I believe this to be a positive influence. Most people cannot afford to see these species in the wild, nor would they want to. But having them as a pet can really expose a person to the beauty and intelligence of these animals in their own home. In general, at least in the United States, most of these species are now captive bred. Finally, if it were necessary and based on the efforts of private breeders, we could build assurance colonies for many species, based on their knowledge and innovation in the breeding of many avian species.

Dr Huyvaert:

Pet bird ownership is both a good and a bad thing for avian conservation. Bird ownership is a good thing because pet owners are often champions for avifauna. Bird owners come to know and appreciate the wonders of birds through the relationship with their birds and often this translates to interest, concern, and sometimes action for wild species. At the same time, advocating pet bird ownership comes with important costs because it can promote the capture and trade of rare or threatened species.

Dr Shashy:

Pet bird ownership can be good for increasing the genetic diversity of a species. However, it can also increase the potential for the illegal trade of wild-caught species. Any person wanting a pet bird should be well educated before purchasing it.

Dr Smith:

Both. Responsible pet bird ownership (ie, choosing a captive reared non-threatened species) can foster a deep compassion for conservation of avian species. However, the demand for pets derived from ill-informed decisions can also fuel the illegal pet trade.

Question: What are the responsibilities that veterinarians should take to help with avian conservation?

Dr Fiorello:

Certainly veterinarians should be aware of the issues facing avian conservation and should educate clients about wild-caught vs captive-bred pet birds. Disease issues with poultry and other domestic species may threaten wild populations, and veterinarians who work with these species should understand these threats. Veterinarians working for zoos and aquaria should help ensure that birds added to their collections come from reputable sources, preferably captive-bred animals.

Dr Heatley:

I find this the most difficult question. As a private practitioner, I had interest in avian conservation but little concept of how to support conservation efforts. Certainly, the Association of Avian Veterinarians is one mechanism for funneling funds toward avian conservation projects.

Dr Huyvaert:

Effective avian conservation demands teams of people from multiple disciplines working together for a common goal. I see veterinarians as key team members who bring unique skill sets and perspectives to all sorts of problems in avian conservation. So many conservation issues for birds involve outbreaks of disease that need veterinarians' disease investigation tools like necropsy, identifying appropriate samples to collect, and diagnostic skills. Further, veterinarians carry the responsibility to work with biologists, managers, and other conservation team members to help interpret investigation findings and shape and inform conservation activities given this new knowledge. It's really impossible to do the best science for avian conservation without strong, diverse teams of people working together.

Dr Shashy:

Education is the primary responsibility of the veterinarian. Communication with pet owners, local pet stores, bird enthusiasts, and conservationists is the best way to educate the public regarding avian conservation. Advocacy and support of legislation at the local, state, and federal government levels to protect endangered avian species is also important. Providing volunteer medical services to local rehabilitation organizations would also aid in conservation. At our local zoo, the Florida Wildlife Federation holds a biannual Pet Amnesty Day to prevent non-native species of animals from release into the wild.

Dr Smith:

Veterinarians should ask the appropriate questions regarding the source of their avian patients and report any cases of suspected illegal trade activity. Reports should be made to your local US Fish and Wildlife Service branch if relating to Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES) or the Endangered Species Act (ESA), or to your state environmental agency if relating to state laws or ESA. Veterinarians should ensure their clients are informed when choosing their pet by referring them to reputable sources such as www.petwatch. net for more information on making responsible pet choices.

Question: How should veterinarians be involved in the education of laypersons on the conservation challenges facing many bird species today?

Dr Fiorello:

Because veterinarians are trusted professionals, they often have the ears of their clients on these issues. Speaking to their clients is a great opportunity to promote conservation in general (ie, using less energy, producing less waste, and properly disposing of plastic and other hazardous materials such as used motor oil). Using and promoting environmentally-friendly strategies in their practices is a great way to demonstrate to the public the importance and feasibility of living more sustainably.

Dr Heatley:

I think one of the best options is to become involved and knowledgeable in local avian species, though rehabilitation or through the Audubon society or master naturalist groups. This can help the veterinarian to better educate the public about local bird species. For the global perspective, there are so many options. The AAV conservation mission and posters are good education tools in this effort.

Dr Huyvaert:

Veterinarians should be involved in bird conservation education by instructing their pet bird clients about the biological, legal, and pragmatic challenges faced when raising birds. They can also be involved in educating laypersons about the very real risks that wild birds face whether the risk is exposure to parasites or pathogens brought along with invasive species or the risks posed by 'outdoor' house cats and feral cats that kill wild birds. In particular, veterinarians can educate people about the need to find alternatives to trap/neuter/release-type programs because of the damage feral cats can do to native bird populations.

Dr Shashy:

Providing public education at local schools and events, bird shows, and parks is a great way for veterinarians to be involved in conservation. Contributions to media sources, such as the local newspaper or television news, can also be an effective way to provide information to the public about avian conservation.

Dr Smith:

Veterinarians often do not appreciate the large audience they have just outside their examination room. Educational posters and reading materials on conservation and responsible pet choices can be placed in the lobby of any veterinary practice, not only exotic pet practices, and often has the added benefit of showing clients they are in a responsible practice that cares about all animals.

Question: What new obstacles do you see in the next 10 to 20 years in the field of avian conservation?

Dr Fiorello:

The increase in the number of people wanting more resources, worsening climate change, and increased pollution (eg, oil, pharmaceuticals, plastic, PCBs) are top on the list of obstacles that will escalate in the future.

Dr Heatley:

I think habitat loss/fragmentation and human population expansion/encroachment will continue. In addition, I think we will see emerging countries desire to have more control of the scientific investigations in their areas and this may limit the sharing of scientific materials.

Dr Huyvaert:

A number of new obstacles for avian conservation that I see are actually linked to problems we face today. Foremost among them is continued habitat loss and degradation linked to efforts to house, feed, and fuel the world's human population. For terrestrial bird conservation, the challenge will be meeting the needs of narrow habitat specialist species in the face of activities like oil and gas development, for example, or combating the increased incidence of some vector-borne diseases in threatened birds in deforested habitats. Because conservation "works" when resources are available, I think that funding conservation efforts will be more challenging in the future. As more species become imperiled, they also will require more attention and resources. We'll need to find new ways to use limited funds effectively and efficiently through careful project design and implementation and perhaps focusing conservation efforts at higher scales--habitat and ecosystem level efforts--so that problems are addressed at scales that aid more species at the same time.

Dr Shashy:

Many pets are being released into the wild. This will increase competition for nesting sites, predation and disease. Habitat destruction will also continue. Other obstacles include fewer grants and other funding for conservation projects because of the poor economy.

Dr Smith:

Habitat conservation will continue to be a significant challenge given the limited space on the planet and the inevitable human population and agricultural growth. As the world becomes smaller in terms of travel and trade, we will see new disease emergence spread between avian species as well as from other taxa. We will also find we need to work together across national and continental borders to monitor disease spread, curb the international illegal trade in wild birds, and to better understand and ensure conservation of migratory species that rely on locations across the globe to make their journey.

Question: What advances do you see in the next 10 to 20 years in the field of avian conservation?

Dr Fiorello:

Advanced reproductive techniques may help save bird species on the brink of extinction. Hopefully new vaccine technology will help with infectious diseases that threaten some species.

Dr Heatley:

I think field diagnostics and communication between groups will become better as technology advances, and we continue to move into a more global economy. Scientists and veterinarians in third world countries will become better educated and will have improved clinical skills and tools needed to manage projects in situ.

Dr Huyvaert:

I think that advances in the miniaturization of telemetry technology and analyzing the huge quantities of data we get from geolocators, GPS units, activity units, and the like will be key to bird conservation efforts because smaller on-board units will let us catch a glimpse of the lives and habits of a whole array of birds that we know virtually nothing about. I think we can best work to preserve and conserve avian biodiversity by uncovering the immense diversity of fascinating life histories that birds have and these improved spatial technologies will really help us do that. I think, too, that the next 10 to 20 years will see very rapid advances in the education and training of avian conservationists in the most bird-diverse regions of the world--like Central and South America and Southeast Asia--as we all come to understand the immense natural and human resources these regions hold.

Dr Shashy:

Advances in avian conservation will require increased and enhanced public education regarding increased land conservation, human-made disasters, and human activity. Earlier detection and diagnoses of diseases in avian species is another requirement. Greater and quicker responses to natural disasters will also aid in avian conservation. Legislation to reduce or prevent feral cat populations and other invasive predators and removal of lead from bullets and fishing weights should also be enacted within 10-20 years.

Dr Smith:

Advances of top significance will be the better understanding and use of novel and multidisciplinary scientific approaches to the complexity of the challenges facing avian conservation. Improved monitoring of potential disease introductions through the animal trade, climatic factors affecting vector-borne diseases, and advances in modeling to predict the impact of introduced pathogens on native hosts will help us to better prepare for new and existing threats to avian conservation. For those populations that are currently threatened by extraction for the illegal trade, only consumer awareness can help--and we as veterinarians owe it to our avian patients to take on this responsibility.
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Title Annotation:Round Table Discussion
Author:Deem, Sharon L.
Publication:Journal of Avian Medicine and Surgery
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2011
Words:3599
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