DANGER: Wild animals can carry pathogens capable of jumping into humans—the first step toward becoming a major infectious killer—so a new plan for avoiding pandemics begins with them. Image: Oxford Scientific Getty Images; JEN CHRISTIANSEN (photoillustration)
- Most human infectious diseases originated in animals.
- Historically, epidemiologists have focused on domestic animals as the source of these scourges. But wild animals, too, have transmitted many diseases to us, including HIV.
- To address the threat posed by wild animals, researchers are studying the microbes of these creatures and the people who come into frequent contact with them.
- Such monitoring may enable scientists to spot emerging infectious diseases early enough to prevent them from becoming pandemics.
Sweat streamed down my back, thorny shrubs cut my arms, and we were losing them again. The wild chimpanzees my colleagues and I had been following for nearly five hours had stopped their grunting, hooting and screeching. Usually these calls helped us follow the animals through Uganda's Kibale Forest. For three large males to quiet abruptly surely meant trouble. Suddenly, as we approached a small clearing, we spotted them standing below a massive fig tree and looking up at a troop of red colobus monkeys eating and playing in the treetop.
The monkeys carried on with their morning meal, oblivious to the three apes below. After appearing for a moment to confer with one another, the chimps split up. While the leader crept toward the fig tree, his compatriots made their way up two neighboring trees in silence. Then, in an instant, the leader rushed up his tree screaming. Leaves showered down as the monkeys frantically tried to evade their attacker. But the chimp had calculated his bluster well: although he failed to capture a monkey himself, one of his partners grabbed a juvenile and made his way down to the forest floor with the young monkey in tow, ready to share his catch.