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As the science of conservation biology matures, its practitioners increasingly find themselves exploring new and unfamiliar terrain. Many of us who were trained in the traditional organismal or field sciences—botany, zoology, ecology, genetics, and the like—now find ourselves dabbling in various human dimensions, learning about economics or becoming minor policy wonks. We have conversations with professionals from fields we never imagined we would have reason to discuss, and we even enjoy it. In fact, what it means to be a conservation biologist is evolving rapidly and broadening; certainly there are more practitioners of conservation biology today working in the social sciences, for example, than there were 15 years ago, when this society was just beginning. This is a sign of a healthy, vibrant, and widely relevant science.

There is an exciting effort now underway to forge a strong coalition among professionals that historically have not enjoyed much interaction. Conservation biology and veterinary and human medicine are in the process of joining forces under a common denominator: health, as broadly considered in an ecological context. This coalition has great potential to unite several important but to this point largely separate fields and to ignite a powerful new global awareness: that conservation of biodiversity and of healthy, functional ecosystems is necessary to the health of individuals and populations, human and otherwise. This promises to be an extremely rich and rewarding alliance.

Earlier this year I was fortunate to be invited to a conference on conservation medicine, the intent of which was to bring together a diverse group of individuals from conservation biology, veterinary and human medicine, public health, and related fields to explore common ground and to promote development of the field of conservation medicine. The meeting was sponsored by the new Center for Conservation Medicine (CCM), a consortium of the Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine, Wildlife Preservation Trust International, and Harvard Medical School's Center for Health and the Global Environment. The mission of the CCM is “… to advance biodiversity conservation and ecosystem health through interdisciplinary biomedical research and education; and to foster human and animal well-being by understanding the ecological context of health.” I believe that the CCM in general and this meeting in particular share an exciting goal: the melding of major and respected scientific fields for the mutual benefit of humanity, wild species, and natural ecosystems.

I was surprised and pleased to learn that the attendees of this conference, most of whom specialize in human or animal medicine, were familiar with the Society for Conservation Biology (SCB), have great respect for the field, and are anxious to work with us in developing the field of conservation medicine. No salesmanship was necessary to convince others that conservation biologists have important perspectives to bring to the table and should be among the central players. I was impressed by the level and extent of knowledge of these medically oriented individuals of the concepts, data, and goals of conservation biology and by the enthusiasm they had for working with the SCB. The ball is rolling and gathering momentum.

Many of the conference topics would be familiar to SCB members, are relevant to our concerns, and tie in nicely to burgeoning efforts by the medical community. Such topics include wildlife veterinary care and diseases in both wild and captive animals, the emerging recognition of endocrine disrupters relative to animal and human health, the destruction and fragmentation of tropical forests and other ecosystems and resultant emerging diseases, wildlife-human disease linkages (e.g., Lyme disease), the many known and yet-undiscovered pharmaceutical products inherent in nature, the importance of ecosystem services to human health, and the effects of climate change on ecosystems and consequently on human populations.

Integration of conservation biology and medicine will be beneficial to all parties. Biomedical research fields will benefit by developing a broader context for the concept of health. For example, the ecological basis for emerging diseases needs to be better understood. Animal populations displaced via habitat fragmentation or alteration can provide new niches for pathogens or can carry their pathogens to new areas and new species. Populations of humans or animals exposed to a new infectious organism tend to experience disease in an explosive manner, whereas endemic infectious organisms are more commonly associated with sporadic and lower-level outbreaks of disease. Hence, habitat fragmentation can adversly affect populations for all the reasons documented by conservation biologists as well as from increased susceptibility to introduced diseases. Medical workers are also learning that disease at the population level can be a symptom of an inbalance in or insult to the system, much like disease in an individual represents an upset of host defenses.

A fundamental perspective of conservation medicine at this early stage represents a shift from viewing diseases of humans or wildlife simply as individual responses to pathogens to understanding them as broader, complex processes affected by ecological systems and understood only within that context (i.e., “the ecological context of health”). If broadly adopted, this more holistic perspective not only would benefit human health but certainly would place a higher premium on learning about, protecting, and restoring natural ecosystems.

Thus, an added biomedical perspective surely would give conservation biology a higher public profile and offer even stronger arguments for biodiversity protection. As we proceed into Earth's sixth major extinction episode with little indication of a respite, laypersons with whom a biodiversity message does not resonate or to whom extinction has no meaning surely would be more apt to listen when human health is involved. One of the difficult messages for conservation biologists to promote is the very real linkage between biodiversity and personal well-being. There are not many topics more personal than health, and strong scientific links between conservation biology and human health could be our most powerful tool in reaching larger expanses of humanity.

Several planned or possible activities will help to develop this collaborative venture over the next several years. First, a symposium on conservation medicine at the 2000 SCB meeting in Missoula, Montana, is in the planning stages. This will afford an opportunity for all conservation biologists to familiarize themselves with this growing discipline. Second, a book is being developed as an outcome from the aforementioned conference. Along with several existing and excellent books on health and conservation, this should begin to define and guide the field and generate further developments. Third, there has been some discussion of a special section in Conservation Biology on the subject, a topic I am in favor of pursuing. Finally, there is growing interest in joint meetings between the SCB and several societies concerned with wildlife or human health to further bring together scientists with a common interest.

Conservation medicine is an exciting venture but one that will succeed only with broad participation. Framing biodiversity issues in context of global health is not only consistent with the goals and objectives of this society, but it is also perhaps one of the great reasons for optimism in otherwise dismal times. Many arguments for protecting biodiversity can be rejected by uninformed individuals on selfish grounds, but human health transcends all of these.

Among Aldo Leopold's many keen and timeless observations is that a person with an ecological education “lives alone in a world of wounds.” Development of a vigorous discipline of conservation medicine could be our best opportunity to begin not only to heal those wounds but also to stop feeling quite so alone. We should welcome and promote this new opportunity.