Sea Star Wasting Disease and the Growing Threat of Wildlife Pathogens

Several years ago, a mysterious disease started to appear in sea stars all along the Pacific coast of North America, rapidly and simultaneously decimating well-known species such as the sunflower and ochre stars.  Sea stars are keystone predators vital to the health and productivity of intertidal zones.  The affliction, known as sea star wasting disease (SSWD), can kill an otherwise healthy sea star in a matter of days, ultimately by causing the animal’s body structure to break down and collapse.

SSWD is one of a number of emergent diseases wreaking havoc on wildlife globally yet generating relatively little public attention and concern.  Partly this is because many of the species most severely impacted – including amphibians, reptiles, freshwater mussels and bats – are frequently overlooked despite the essential ecological roles they play.  Additionally, while there are clear policy and funding frameworks to address the detection, treatment and prevention of diseases that directly affect people and livestock, little corresponding infrastructure exists for wildlife disease.  This is particularly problematic given the speed with which many of these pathogens are spreading.  

The growing wildlife disease threat has primarily human origins.  The global movement of people and goods, including the wild animal trade (both legal and illegal), facilitates the spread of disease across countries and continents while the climate crisis is allowing diseases to emerge and thrive where they previously could not.  

Funding is urgently required to address this growing problem.  Needs include critical scientific research on known diseases; the capacity to better predict, detect and respond rapidly to outbreaks; the ability to educate the public on steps people can take to reduce disease spread; and key policy changes to help prevent the movement of disease across borders.

The BAND Foundation has funded projects targeting particular diseases (including SSWD, white-nose syndrome in bats and another deadly fungal pathogen in salamanders) while highlighting the broader threat wildlife disease poses to biodiversity and human well-being.  Most recently, we supported PRIMED – Primary Responders in Marine Emergent Diseases – a collaborative monitoring and response network on the Pacific coast. 

Critical Role of Kenyan Wildlife Conservancies Featured in Two New Reports

Kenya has lost more than half its wildlife over the past three decades.  Most of those losses have occurred outside of national protected areas.  Two new reports from the World Bank and PERC single out the potential of wildlife conservancies to reverse this trend while also generating meaningful economic benefits for local people.  Wildlife conservancies are lands designated by individual landowners, groups of landowners or communities to be managed for wildlife conservation and other compatible uses.  Economic benefits from conservancies can accrue through tourism, sustainable livestock enterprise, carbon offsets and other means.  As a recognized land use under Kenya’s Wildlife Act of 2013, conservancies offer improved land and resource rights as well as access to incentives.  As the World Bank report notes:

“Conservancies could play a crucial role in halting the collapse of wildlife in Kenya by extending the areas under protection around parks, reconnecting habitats, and limiting overcrowding in parks.  And more than that, conservancies offer levers to boost and diversify economic activities in some of the most remote parts of the country.  In places where ranching and agriculture are under stress due to shifting weather patterns, land degradation, or overstocking, conservancies offer more sustainable livelihood options that will inevitably increase in value as wildlife numbers and wilderness viewing opportunities shrink across the globe.”

The BAND Foundation provides funding to strengthen conservancies in the Maasai Mara region through the Maasai Mara Wildlife Conservancies Association and to support the conservancy movement nationally through the Kenya Wildlife Conservancies Association.

The Guardian Launches “The Age of Extinction”

The Guardian today launched The Age of Extinction, a major multi-media reporting initiative to substantially expand global coverage of species loss and related ecological destruction.  A key feature of the series will be to explore the most promising solutions for halting these alarming trends.  Support for this ambitious effort is being provided by the BAND and Wyss Foundations through theguardian.org.  The series will run through December 2020 when governments will convene to seek consensus on increased measures to protect biodiversity.

The Age of Extinction comes on the heels of a comprehensive UN report warning that the rapid deterioration of the natural world imperils the conditions necessary for human existence and well-being.  These include our ability to produce food, energy and medicines and to derive cultural, spiritual and other non-material benefits essential to our quality of life.  Among the report’s critical findings is that more than one million species are at grave risk of extinction. 

“We are rapidly diminishing nature’s ability to sustain and inspire us,” said Nick Lapham, President of the BAND Foundation.  “The Guardian is the global leader in environmental reporting and offers the perfect platform to bring a new level of attention, depth and consistency to coverage of these urgent issues.  By explaining the threats we face and profiling the people, organizations and ideas that can lead us out of this crisis, we hope The Age of Extinction will empower policy makers and other key stakeholders to take the bold actions needed to help nature recover and thrive.”

New Video Highlights “Extreme Botany” in Service of Saving Critically Endangered Plants

While the term “endangered species” conjures images of rhinos, elephants and great apes, plants are undergoing their own extinction crisis, especially on islands where range-restricted species are under siege from introduced mammals, habitat conversion, climate change and other factors.  We still know relatively little about these island plants, including their evolutionary histories, unique chemical properties and interrelationships with local insects and other species.      

Perhaps nowhere is the plant extinction crisis more acute than Hawaii where 45% of all plants listed under the Endangered Species Act are found.  Fortunately, Hawaii is also the site of one of the world’s most audacious and effective plant conservation programs.  The Plant Extinction Prevention Program (PEPP), a BAND grantee, is dedicated to keeping endangered plants—those with 50 or fewer individuals left—from being lost forever. Before PEPP’s establishment in 2003, Hawaii was averaging one plant extinction per year.  PEPP’s field botanists have reduced that number to zero, but their work is now under threat from federal funding cuts.  Keeping Hawaii’s and other plant species alive is going to require broader public awareness and support for the importance of plants and the work of PEPP and others who dedicate their lives to safeguarding botanic diversity.

Mara Predator Conservation Program Discovers Rare Wild Dog Den Site

Researchers with the BAND-funded Mara Predator Conservation Program (MPCP) have recently discovered an active den of highly endangered wild dogs just inside the northern boundary of Mara North Conservancy.  The conservancy is an innovative partnership through which local landowners pool and lease their land to tourism operators in exchange for receiving regular payments and retaining the right to graze their livestock.  

The pack’s den is very close to the conservancy border in an area threatened by fencing and agricultural conversion.  MPCP is working with the Maasai Mara Wildlife Conservancies Association and other partners to engage local communities in developing strategies for safeguarding key habitat corridors and reducing human/wildlife conflict.  A number of local Maasai landowners recently agreed to remove fencing around their properties, a critical move for the future of wild dogs and other species in this high priority conservation landscape.  

As seen below, there appear to be nine young pups at the site.  Wild dogs have long been persecuted across their range for predating on livestock and are also highly vulnerable to canine distemper and other diseases.  Their presence here is testament to the critical importance of mixed use landscapes outside national parks and protected areas, and their persistence on such landscapes depends entirely on community tolerance.  MPCP is urgently working to raise funds to assist in monitoring these dogs and in implementing measures to reduce the risk to local livestock.

Two Honeyguide Rangers Win African Ranger of the Year Award from Paradise Foundation

Honeyguide is a Tanzanian NGO working to develop successful models of community conservation across over one million acres of critical habitat in northern Tanzania.  Honeyguide engages in long-term partnerships with local communities aimed at achieving ecological viability and financial independence in priority sites, including Randilen Wildlife Management Area in a project funded by the BAND Foundation. 

Honeyguide’s strategies include reducing human/wildlife conflict; increasing revenue generation from tourism and other sustainable land uses; strengthening management and governance of community wildlife areas; and guiding, training and equipping village game scouts.  Two of these village game scouts, Lerumbe Kaay and Shinini Simel, have recently been selected to receive the prestigious 2019 African Ranger of the Year Award from the Paradise Foundation.  Lerumbe and Shinini were among 50 winners from 17 countries.  These videos briefly tell their stories.

The African Ranger awards seek to recognize the essential role of rangers in conserving Africa’s wildlife.  An estimated 20,000-25,000 rangers work across the continent to safeguard elephants, rhinos, gorillas and a host of other species often at great risk to themselves and their families.  In addition to highlighting their achievements, the awards provide direct financial support to the rangers.

4th African Epilepsy Congress Held in Entebbe, Uganda

Epilepsy afflicts more than 10 million Africans.  Only 10-25% receive treatment.

African Epilepsy Congress
August 2019
Entebbe, Uganda

This past August the 4th African Epilepsy Congress was held in Entebbe, Uganda.  The meeting, organized by the International League Against Epilepsy (ILAE) and the International Bureau for Epilepsy (IBE), welcomed clinicians, researchers and advocates from across the continent who aim to improve and expand epilepsy care.  Participants addressed clinical management issues specific to Africa and discussed the vast challenges to narrowing the epilepsy treatment gap and eliminating the stigma, shame and abuse that impedes care.  

This meeting came on the heels of a newly released World Health Organization publication titled “Epilepsy: A Public Health Imperative”.  Its key finding: “50 million people worldwide have epilepsy, making it one of the most common neurological diseases globally. Nearly 80% of people with epilepsy live in low- and middle-income countries.  It is estimated that up to 70% of people living with epilepsy could live seizure-free if properly diagnosed and treated”.

During the conference, many advocates and patients powerfully described the physical abuse, isolation, shame and denial of educational, social and employment opportunities that can result from epilepsy, which in certain instances is even believed to be contagious.  They noted that epilepsy’s social stigma continues to be driven in part by a pervasive belief in witchcraft, with the disease often seen as a curse or retribution on a family.  Mainly, epilepsy is viewed as a mental health problem, with traditional healers as the first line of care deploying treatments that can be both dehumanizing and unsafe.

Meeting participants railed against the injustice in epilepsy care, noting that affordable medication could immediately and dramatically improve the lives of the millions not currently receiving treatment.  African governments were urged to further integrate epilepsy into existing health care systems.  Representatives from Kenya, Zambia, South Africa, Eswatini, Mauritius and Mozambique gathered to discuss the BAND-funded project aimed at making epilepsy a national priority in their nations. sharing challenges and successes.   In a letter read to all conference participants, His Royal Highness Prince Bandzile of Eswatini said:

“This is a time to unite and fight epilepsy, the silent killer. I call upon all Kings and Presidents of Africa, First Ladies, Princes, Princesses, traditional authorities and local governments to formulate an alliance to fight epilepsy.”

National Geographic Investigation on Endangered Fish of the Mekong Wins One World Media Award

Photograph by Linh Pham, National Geographic

Media reporting on biodiversity loss often focuses on high-profile animals like elephants, rhinos and tigers.  Less well known are the dramatic declines facing a range of other species, many of which play critical ecological roles and have profound importance for human economies, cultures and livelihoods.  BAND funded National Geographic to report on some of these stories — including this award-winning piece on the illegal trade in the giant freshwater fish of the Mekong — through Wildlife Watch, its platform dedicated to covering wildlife exploitation.

Southeastern Grasslands Initiative featured on Yale e360

Prior to European settlement, the landscape of the Southeastern United States was a mosaic of many habitat types, including significant and varied grasslands.  These grasslands and the rich biodiversity they contain have been greatly diminished due to development, loss of large herbivores and fire suppression. A new article on Yale Environment 360 describes how a BAND Foundation grantee, the Southeastern Grasslands Initiative (SGI), is working to reverse this trend.  Grasslands are one of the world’s most threatened biomes despite their critical importance for biodiversity, carbon sequestration and rural and pastoral communities.  In addition to its support of SGI, BAND funds grassland conservation in Kenya, Tanzania and Mongolia. 

Epilepsy and Alzheimer’s disease: Overlapping mechanisms and therapeutic opportunities?

It has long been understood that seizures can occur in people with Alzheimer’s, and this has been considered a potential factor in the progression of Alzheimer’s dementia.  However, the links between Alzheimer’s disease and epilepsy are poorly understood.  With the BAND Foundation’s support, the Alzheimer’s Association convened scientific and clinical leaders from the epilepsy and Alzheimer’s fields to review current understanding of the biological mechanisms underpinning the respective diseases.  The goal of this two-day meeting, held in September 2017, was to plan for future research and catalyze collaborations needed to identify novel diagnostic and treatment strategies.  Results of the meeting can be found here.

Nature Conservation. Epilepsy Care.