Posted by: salamandercandy | January 30, 2006

Conservation Conversation

“Thank you for inviting me to your home, sir.”

“Not at all, not at all. Why, it’s refreshing to meet a young man such as yourself who is so enthusiastic about biological conservation. Most people these days will admit that declining species present a major concern, but then ignore the problem and keep living their wasteful lifestyle.”

“Not me. I really do care about protecting biodiversity. That’s why I contacted you. Please, if there’s anything I can do…”

“Well, we have several conservation projects going on, and I’m sure that we can find you ample opportunity to serve your planet. There are species that will only survive with the dedication of an enthusiastic, healthy young man such as yourself. Jobs that none of us old folks could…”

“You mean like trekking through the jungle, facing raw nature…?.”

“Facing raw nature, exactly. And if you can save just one species…”

“I am committing myself to doing that.”

“Glad to hear it, glad to hear it. Sit down, have some salad, and lets talk about these environmental problems.”

“Well, as you know, sir, there’s pollution, poaching, global warming, cutting down the rainforest, coral bleaching, invasive species, the hole in the ozone layer…”

“Not to mention infectious disease.”


“We don’t hear about disease so much as a threat to biodiversity, do we? But scientists are starting to realize the serious conservation implications it entails.”

“But, I’m talking about things humans are doing to the environment. Those are the big problems, aren’t they? We don’t create diseases and unleash them on wildlife… do we?”

“Not yet, not yet, thank goodness. But we inadvertently spread existing diseases around the world, introducing them to creatures with no natural resistance. I’m talking about the chytrid fungus that’s caused population crashes in amphibians around the globe. I’m talking about the European myxozoan parasite that’s been introduced into North American watersheds and is causing our trout and salmon to swim funny. Crayfish plague in Europe. Kangaroo blindness in Australia. Parapoxvirus attacking red squirrels in Britain.”

“We move the diseases around?”

“Sometimes we introduce a non-native plant or animal that carries the disease. But sometimes it just comes along with us, stuck to our boots, in the ballast water of the ship, in the produce we transport.”

“So it’s inevitable that these horrible, loathsome…”

“Careful, now, you don’t want to oversimplify. See, diseases play important roles in ecology, too. They’re not all bad, by any means. Not all bad. And that’s part of the problem. See, when we introduce an animal or a plant to a new habitat, often it doesn’t bring all of it’s germs with it. That gives it a competitive edge over the locals, who have their whole suite of diseases that specialize on them. That’s why non-native species can be so invasive sometimes and drive locals to extinction.”

“So, you’re saying that sometimes we should deliberately introduce diseases as biocontrols on invasive species.”

“Well, we need to really understand them first. That’s rare, such a level of comprehension. If possible, we should keep things put until we know what’s going on. It’s complicated, that’s what I’m saying. But if ecologists and conservationists ignore disease organisms, if they just focus on the big furry cute species… we’re missing something. We’re not getting the whole picture.”

“I don’t think people are likely to get excited about disease organisms, though.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, when a species is declining because of pesticides in the groundwater or increased UV radiation coming down from the sky, people sit up and take notice. That’s the kind of thing that could harm us, too. So people support efforts to eradicate the problem. But crayfish plague, on the other hand…”

“That’s the gravest mistake of all. Not going to harm us, too? Are we not biological beings? Diseases can jump from species to species. That’s probably where most human diseases come from. AIDS, Ebola, SARS. We humans risk a lot from emerging pathogens and macroparasites.”

“Not macroparasites. Really? You mean, like tapeworms and roundworms and stuff? In the twenty-first century, people don’t still get those, do they?”

“Oh yes, macroparasites – that is, worms rather than germs – still cause plenty of suffering and death in Third World humans. Schistosomiasis. Sleeping sickness. Malaria. Why, there’s a trematode flatworm parasite endemic to Malaysia that is said to cause extremely painful cramps. It’s not fatal, fortunately, but there is no known cure. The victims pass hundreds of eggs when nature calls, so there are plenty of worms around infesting any food and water that’s not properly sanitized. Modern health standards have caused major changes in Malaysia, though, and the parasite is nearly completely eradicated. But like I said, there are others. It’s complicated.”

“But, but back to the big picture. About conservation. Surely pollution and whatnot are bigger concerns than diseases. I mean, look what the effects have been.”

“No doubt that we are causing immense damage to our environment with chemical pollutants. But sometimes their effects are overstated. Remember those frogs with multiple limbs that some school kids found in Minnesota? Everyone thought it was pesticides or something. It turns out that it was a parasite. Now, perhaps pollution or something else weakens the frog immune system and makes it easier for the parasite to infest. But still, we keep forgetting about these disease organisms.”

“What can we do?”

“Learn, learn, learn. We need to study disease organisms, and learn about their ecological interactions with their hosts. Of course, we can only do this if those ecological interactions remain intact. Unfortunately, as you well know, ecosystems are getting torn apart and put back together in different combinations. Host-parasite relationships that evolved over millions of years are being disrupted. And if we lose them, it will be pretty hard to predict the consequences diseases can have.”

“People just have no respect for nature.”

“People need to realize that they’re part of nature, too. Protecting nature means re-establishing our connections to it.”

“Well, I need to get going, but I can’t thank you enough for offering to guide me on my mission to protect endangered species. I’ve always wanted to do something, but I’ve never really known how.”

“Glad to have you aboard. I assure you, with your commitment, you will make a big difference. A big difference. One species at a time.”

“And thank you for the meal. The salad in particular was delicious.”

“Only the freshest for you, my friend. Why, one ingredient was just shipped here all the way from Malaysia this morning.”

“Quite the gourmet chef, you are.”

“Oh no, my cooking skills really are mediocre most of the time. A delicious meal is a fluke.”

“Again, thanks for meeting with me. You are a wonderful host.”

“No, I skipped the salad, after all. But, for the sake of conservation, let us hope that you are.”



  1. Although birds can spread germs to people, illness caused by touching or owning birds is rare. To best protect yourself from getting sick, thoroughly wash your hands with running water and soap after contact with birds or their droppings. WBR LeoP

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