Working in Conservation as a Veterinarian

Veterinarians working as conservationists are classified into the field of Conservation Medicine. This field also overlaps with many other areas such as human medicine, biology, zoology, ecology, etc. As a veterinarian who has been lucky enough to study a semester of Conservation Medicine at university, I would like to give you an insight into how this overlap between conservation and veterinary medicine works. So, what job opportunities are there for veterinarians working in conservation?

Wildlife Veterinarian

This seems to be the most obvious association when thinking of a veterinarian working as a conservationist. As this is the job I have had the least personal experience with, I have asked a fellow student of mine, Nicole Diana Wolf, to describe how she has experienced the work with a wildlife veterinarian and its relevance to conservation.

As a wildlife veterinarian you rarely treat the animals themselves. Instead, your focus is on keeping their habitat safe for them and safe for the humans living there. The main part of the job is educating people living with or around wildlife on how to act if they ever encounter it and how they have to treat their environment. It starts with simple things, like wildlife safe dustbins so the animals don’t get attracted by our food and therefore do not get used to us and won’t do any harm.

Another big thing is to protect wildlife from diseases caused by domestic animals and vice versa. Therefore, the livestock owners need to be aware of transmissible diseases and we try to vaccinate the domestic animals against common diseases. Furthermore, the interaction between domestic animals and wildlife should be kept to a minimum, so veterinarians give advice on how to build wildlife safe shelters and so on.

Last but not least is treating wildlife itself. Usually veterinarians do not interact with wildlife a lot, since it’s very hard to treat a wild animal that’s not used to human contact. For wild animals it’s very stressful if they’re around humans, even if it is for their wellbeing. Treatment mainly happens in controlled Game Reserves or National Parks and it includes vaccines (i.e. Rabies, Canine Distemper Virus), translocation, spays and rarely surgery. Typically, treatments are only done if they can be done with one single interaction – no recapture!

Zoo Veterinarian

The role of zoo veterinarians in conservation has expanded significantly over the past few decades. It is often assumed, that a zoo veterinarian is only responsible for treating a zoo animal when it gets ill and keeping the overall collection of animals healthy. However, this is only a fraction of the work they do, as they are now involved in the more traditional ex situ conservation projects and education, but also in rehabilitation and reintroduction projects. Of course, not every zoo veterinarian does all of these things, but conservation is becoming an ever-growing part of the job in many institutions.

Ex situ conservation is probably the most traditional form of conservation associated with zoos. It involves breeding projects to maintain a genetically healthy captive population of a species. In part, this is to ensure the survival of the species, even if it goes extinct in the wild, but it can also be a valuable source of animals for reintroduction efforts (however, this doesn’t work with all species). For example, the Tiergarten Schönbrunn in Vienna plays a vital part in a project to reintroduce the northern bald ibis back into the wild in Europe by breeding these birds as well as offering expert advice and financial support to the project.

Research & Specialisation

The veterinarians that are truly invaluable to conservation, are those that have dedicated their lives to specialising in subjects essential for the work with endangered species and wildlife in general. This includes anaesthesiology of wildlife/marine mammals/fish and molluscs (and so on), reproduction physiology of endangered species and options to aid their breeding processes, setting markers to assess the wellbeing of populations in the wild (and individuals in an ex situ setting) and so many other fields that are vital to conservation efforts being successful.

As an example, in our study of conservation medicine, we were lucky enough to be granted an insight into the work of Dr. Robert Hermes, who is based at the IZW Berlin. The research we were able to witness was a part of his work on the “Reproductive management and assisted reproduction of rhinoceros”. In his research he works a lot with animals in ex situ conservation programs, while also hoping the knowledge gained could potentially be used in in situ conservation (even in the Northern White Rhinoceros). The knowledge gained by these kinds of experts allows conservationists to explore new opportunities for conservation projects and expands the options available for new conservation efforts.

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