SMART for Wildlife Health Surveillance

By Diego Montecino | May 19, 2022

A ranger in Cambodia detects a wildlife health event in a protected area. Photo credit: ©WCS Cambodia.

Human-caused changes in the planet’s ecology over the past two centuries have destroyed wildlife habitat, promoted the introduction of species, and created opportunities for pathogens to interact with new hosts. Direct consequences of such “anthropogenic” activities include the global decline and extinction of amphibian species due to a fungus that spread across the world and a disease outbreak in Central Asia driven by a common livestock pathogen that killed 80 percent of saiga antelope.

These changes don’t just impact wildlife. By degrading nature, humans are coming into greater contact with wild animals and their pathogens. SARS-CoV-2 is only one of a group of lethal viruses of zoonotic origin — including Ebola virus and Avian Influenza A viruses — that have impacted human populations.

“By degrading nature, humans are coming into greater contact with wild animals and their pathogens. SARS-CoV-2 is only one of a group of lethal viruses of zoonotic origin.”

But how do we better detect the health risks associated with wildlife populations before they cause conservation or public health problems? We need an early warning system, but surveillance for wildlife health is not formally established in most nations, with just a few developed countries conducting established, nationwide, and centralized programs for a determined number of known pathogens.

A trained ranger safely collects biological samples in the field. Photo credit: ©WCS Laos.

The wildlife health surveillance systems that are in place provide evidence of their value for conservation and public health. Building on that work, WCS is using the Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool (SMART) — ­originally designed for protected area monitoring­­ and management — to support the recording of wildlife health events.

The Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool (SMART) is a suite of tech-based tools developed by a global partnership of conservation organizations­­. SMART has performed so well it has since been adopted for use in environmental research, marine sites and communities. To date, more than 50,000 rangers deployed in over 1,000 remote and protected areas, including zones identified as hotspots of disease emergence, use SMART to record patrol findings.

The utility of adapting SMART for wildlife health is clear. Robust information on infectious and non-infectious diseases in wildlife allows assessments of disease emergence, population and ecosystem impacts of disease, and the development of evidence-based solutions.

1. A ranger in Cambodia is trained to properly use SMART for Health to record wildlife health events found during patrols. Photo credit: Alice Porco/WCS.

Leveraging the existing network of SMART users to detect diseases in wildlife is a game-changer in our ability to track and respond to health threats on time. SMART is the logical first choice to empower rangers and others to collect wildlife health observations globally. For this reason, working with my colleagues at Wildlife Conservation Society, I helped build SMART for Health.

It’s a configuration for the mobile-phone based SMART app for use in the field to enable easy, quick, and standardized collection of wildlife morbidity and mortality event data. The key information users collect (e.g., geolocation; event description; characteristics of healthy, sick, and dead animals; photographs; and specimens) can be reported in real-time. This facilitates the prompt risk assessment of these events and timely response.

“Robust information on infectious and non-infectious diseases in wildlife allows assessments of disease emergence, population and ecosystem impacts of disease, and the development of evidence-based solutions.”

We developed versions of the app for rangers making observations only, rangers making observations and collecting samples, and for professional ‘Health Teams.’ We have completed SMART for Health manuals, a data dictionary, and training materials and translated the ranger versions into local languages.

A WCS field team member using SMART for Health to record a wildlife health event. Photo credit: ©WCS Laos.

An important feature of SMART for Health are core data standards so that information collected by these or future user groups, like community members or wildlife trafficking teams, can be efficiently shared to gain insight and knowledge from protected areas, countries, regions, and the world.

This last year the WCS Health Program trained users, piloted, and initially deployed SMART for Health in Southeast Asia — specifically in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. Furthermore, we’re excited to roll out SMART for Health in Guatemala, Belize, Mexico, and Peru in the coming year. In addition, WCS country programs in Madagascar, Indonesia, and Malaysia have expressed interest in SMART for Health and we’re working hard to keep up. This level of interest shows there is a need for tools to support wildlife health data collection.

Our focus for now remains on the design, piloting, and early implementation. In the near future, we believe SMART for Health will become the go-to wildlife health data collection tool for fully functional wildlife health surveillance system networks. In fact, SMART for Health already supplies the data collection component to global wildlife health surveillance initiatives like WildHealthNet.

As the world slowly recovers from the current global pandemic with the priority of avoiding another, the timing could not be better. Technologies like SMART for Health are becoming a key part of protecting the health of the planet.

Dr. Diego Montecino is the Wildlife Health Data Scientist & Manager with the Health Program at WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society).

To learn more visit our SMART for Health, Surveillance and Rapid Response, and WildHealthNetwebsites.

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Wildlife Conservation Society

Wildlife Conservation Society

WCS saves wildlife and wild places worldwide through science, conservation action, education, and inspiring people to value nature.