for National Geographic News
Jaguars and other big cats can protect humans from the rise of future pandemics akin to HIV and bird flu.
That's the message freshly trained "doctor conservationists" will be taking into the field as part of a new collaboration between a wildlife-protection nonprofit and a teaching hospital.
In Central and South America, jaguars are often labeled as "cattle killers" and are slaughtered on sight. The species is also at risk of declining genetic health as its habitat contracts and populations are cut off from each other. (See wild jaguar photos.)
"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," said Alan Rabinowitz, president and CEO of the big-cat conservation group Panthera.
"Once that cascade has been set off, it has been shown through data to directly link to increases in disease among neighboring human populations."
Curing and Educating
A decline in top-level predators such as the jaguar can lead to a boom in prey populations that encourages the spread of disease.
Some of those diseases can then become zoonotic, jumping from animals to humans. (Read related news about decoding deadly variants of the bird flu virus.)
HIV, West Nile virus, and avian influenza, for example, are "reemerging diseases which have always been in the environment, but [until recently] they've been kept in check and didn't bleed over into human populations," Rabinowitz said.
As part of its broader efforts to protect big cats, New York-based Panthera has partnered with the Mount Sinai Medical Center to train 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.
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