Parasites and diseases have always been an important natural factor in regulating the ecology of wildlife, especially in wild populations that have become unsustainably large. Today, however, human activities are facilitating increased spread and transmission of parasites and other pathogens, sometimes even creating conditions for epidemics to develop (Figure 11.7.1). Consequently, parasites and diseases have become a major threat to wildlife, including those already suffering under low population sizes and densities.
One way in which humans elevate the impact of parasites and diseases on wildlife is by exposing native species to harmful organisms that they have never previously encountered, and thus have no evolved coping mechanisms. For example, population declines and extirpations of about 200 frog species across the world (Tarrant et al., 2013; Hirschfeld et al., 2016), is due, in part, to a disease caused by the chytrid fungus (Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis). This disease, known as chytridiomycosis (Figure 11.7.2), affects a frog’s ability to absorb water and electrolytes through the skin (Alroy, 2015). It likely originated in the Korean Peninsula (O’Hanlon et al., 2018), and spread across the world through trade with African clawed frogs (Xenopus laevis, LC) (Weldon et al., 2004). As of yet, there is no cure for this disease, and it continues to be seen as one of the biggest threats currently facing the world’s amphibians.
Disease transmissions can also occur when humans and their pets or livestock interact with wildlife (Cumming and Cumming, 2015). For example, during the early 1990s about 25% of lions in Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park were killed by canine distemper virus which they contracted from domestic dogs living near the park (Kissui and Packer, 2004). But even chytridiomycosis (discussed above) can become an anthroponotic disease, transferred from frog to frog by a careless biologist that handles a healthy frog after a sick one without taking precautions against transmission. Some diseases (e.g. Ebola; flu; and tuberculosis) can be anthroponotic and zoonotic (transferred from animals to humans). While the impact of Ebola on humans in Africa is well-known, it is worth noting that gorillas suffer 90% mortality when exposed to Ebola, compared to 50% mortality in humans. In fact, it was an Ebola outbreak in 2004 that caused the western lowland gorilla (Gorilla gorilla gorilla, CR) to be classified as highly threatened by the IUCN (Genton et al., 2012).
Humans also indirectly facilitate the transmission and spread of parasites and pathogens. While there are some exceptions (notably social insects), transmission and infection rates are typically low for wildlife living in large, complex ecosystems because they have space to move away from disease-carrying droppings, saliva, old skin, and other sources of infection. However, these natural buffers against pathogens and parasites are removed when humans confine those organisms to small areas (such as small fenced reserves) or keep them in crowded conditions. In addition to forcing those organisms to remain in close contact with potential sources of infection, crowded conditions lead to deterioration of habitat quality and food availability. Both these factors increase the organisms’ stress levels and reduce their body conditions which, in turn, lowers their resistance to parasites and diseases (reviewed in Gottdenker et al., 2014).
Parasites and diseases also threaten captive wildlife populations, including those kept at zoos and other ex situ conservation facilities. Because of the proximity in which different species are kept, captive conditions may allow for easier spread of diseases. An added complication with captive populations is that some individuals may function as disease reservoirs. These individuals generally appear healthy because they are fairly resistant to the disease they carry, yet they are able to infect other susceptible individuals. Disease reservoirs frequently limit opportunities for translocation of captive populations, even when dealing with threatened species. For example, well-meaning people often bring raggedy-looking yet healthy penguins in moult to rehabilitation centres, hoping the penguins will be released once “better”. Yet, those animals might never be released back in the wild to avoid the risk of transmitting diseases to wild penguin populations (Brossy et al., 1999).
The impacts of diseases are bound to become more important in the future of conservation biology, especially as growing human populations and increased competition for space increase the need for single-species management and ex situ conservation. Disease management should therefore always be taken very seriously, and appropriate steps taken to avoid disease transmissions.