Protecting All Creatures, Great and Small—Around the Globe

Stories You May Like

Minnie to the Max! CVM’s Beloved Mini Horse Is a Big Red Star

Veterinary Specialists Help Furry Patients Get Back on their Paws

The ‘Mother of Shelter Medicine’: Vet Pioneer Lila Miller ’74, DVM ’77

From Ithaca to the plains of southern Africa, the Cornell Wildlife Health Center is working to heal the natural world

By Lindsay Lennon

“Synergy.” It’s a buzzword in business. But for the scientists trying to save wild creatures and heal the planet, synergy is the cornerstone of all species’ survival—including our own.

It’s obvious, yet almost too awesome to grasp: the health of humanity is intrinsically impacted by the wellbeing of wildlife, from North American moose in the Adirondacks to Bhutanese tigers in the Himalayas.

This interconnectedness, and the benefits that come from nurturing it, is the driving force behind the Cornell Wildlife Health Center.

Launched in 2020 and based in the College of Veterinary Medicine, the center—a virtual entity still in need of a dedicated physical space—was formed to unite Cornell’s leading wildlife health professionals under a common mission: to repair the fractured relationship between people and nature.

“We’re all trying to save the world,” says the center’s director, Steve Osofsky, DVM ’89, “and coming at it from different ways.”

Steve Osofsky and a Jeep in Africa
Osofsky in Namibia’s Bwabwata National Park. (Provided)

Indeed, the center’s leadership—a collective of Cornell’s foremost experts in fish, elephants, wild carnivores, cattle, and many other species—is itself a representation of its holistic, inclusive approach to repairing the natural world.

“It’s not just about generating new knowledge—it’s about solving real problems,” explains Osofsky, the Jay Hyman Professor of Wildlife Health & Health Policy. “We’re not just studying a rare species somewhere in the jungle. We’re trying to make sure it’s there in 100 years, and 1,000 years.”

That work is being done across the globe—from investigating emerging, deadly diseases in fish in the Great Lakes to protecting rhinos from potential health threats in Nepal and Indonesia.

Veterinary student and professor test sample fish for virus
Testing a fish for a deadly virus in a CVM facility. (Lindsay France / Cornell University)

For instance, in the Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area—a 200,000-square-mile swath of southern Africa spanning five countries that’s home to the world’s largest remaining elephant population—Osofsky and colleagues lead the Beyond Fences project.

It aims to alleviate decades of wild migration disruption caused by fencing that first appeared in the 1950s to shield southern Africa’s beef trade from the effects of foot-and-mouth disease carried by wild buffalo—but which also began blocking the ancient migration paths of the region’s elephants, wildebeests, and other wildlife.

By working to advance less fence-dependent approaches to disease mitigation, the center hopes to see not just a rebound in these declining wildlife populations, but also make beef markets more accessible to rural farmers.

We’re all trying to save the world, and coming at it from different ways.

Steve Osofsky, DVM ’89, Cornell Wildlife Health Center director

Like Beyond Fences, much of the center’s work underscores the profound connection between wildlife health and human vitality—and promotes the concept that conservation has a clear positive impact on the physical and financial wellbeing of communities.

Helen Lee ’03, MBA ’20, traveled deep into the mountains of Tajikistan on such an initiative in 2019.

Stories You May Like

Minnie to the Max! CVM’s Beloved Mini Horse Is a Big Red Star

Veterinary Specialists Help Furry Patients Get Back on their Paws

Led by the center’s wild carnivore health specialist (Martin Gilbert, an associate professor of practice in population medicine and diagnostic sciences) in tandem with local partners, the ongoing project aims to help livestock farmers increase profits and improve herd health—while reducing their footprints and sustainably coexisting with the region’s wild goats, sheep, and snow leopards.

“It’s not just wildlife health,” says Lee, the center’s conservation and livelihoods advisor.

“It’s human health, agriculture, community livelihoods, climate change, the business sector—there are so many interweaving touchpoints.”

People and livestock in the Pamir Mountains
Field work in Tajikistan’s Pamir Mountains. (Helen Lee)

To frame the center’s mission, Osofsky cites a recent report from the World Wildlife Fund, which found that the planet’s wild animal populations collectively shrank by nearly 70 percent from 1970 to 2018.

Human population growth, meanwhile, has gone full steam in the other direction—from 3 to 8 billion since the 1960s, and projected to swell to 10 billion in the coming decades.

“We’ve met the enemy, if you will,” says Osofsky. “And it’s us.”

A bright spot, he notes, is that those human numbers will likely peak and then plateau. In the meantime, the center is committed to treating the wildlife situation as urgent, with the goal of proactively reversing those grim trends in the natural world.

Three people helping a wildebeest in Africa
Osofsky (center) examines a wildebeest in Africa’s Kalahari Desert in the 1990s. (Provided)

Says Osofsky: “A lot of what we do is to make sure that after human population stabilizes, at the other end of that bottleneck, there’s still wild nature and wildlife there for future generations.”

While the center’s efforts span the globe, they include a facility in Ithaca: the Janet L. Swanson Wildlife Hospital, which treats sick and injured creatures—as the website notes, “from chickadees to cottontail rabbits, bobcats to bald eagles”—that are native to the Northeast region.

And starting in July 2023, the hospital will serve as home base for the center’s first-ever internship in wildlife health. According to Sara Childs-Sanford, DVM ’99, the hospital’s section chief, applications for the position have already outstripped expectations.

Veterinarians examining a wild bobcat
Childs-Sanford (right) and a colleague examine a wild bobcat. (Cornell University)

While the intern (a practicing veterinarian) will spend the bulk of their time in clinical training at the hospital, they’ll get hands-on experience in other areas, such as aquatics and pathology, and will work with the Cornell Wildlife Health Lab, a partnership with the New York State Department of Conservation.

“This will fill a void that many of us working in wildlife health have experienced in some capacity,” notes Childs-Sanford, an associate professor of wildlife medicine. “We’ve all taken such different pathways to get where we are in our fields. We’re trying to give future veterinarians an avenue to really get exposure to different areas of wildlife health.”

Top: Image and video courtesy of Cornell Wildlife Health Center.

Published January 12, 2023


  1. Annie Seyler, Class of 1987

    The Cornell Wildlife Health Center’s mission-driven work makes me proud to be an alumna.

  2. Steve Osofsky, Class of 1989

    Thanks Annie! Please consider signing-up to receive our free quarterly e-newsletter here:

    so we can keep you updated on our efforts. Sincerely, Steve Osofsky, DVM (’89), Cornell Wildlife Health Center Director

  3. Brett Blumenthal, Class of 1995

    My gosh I wish I knew about this before! What wonderful work and this makes me so thrilled to see Cornell take a proactive role in wildlife conservation. I’d love to speak to someone about programs in which Alumni can get involved.

  4. Gwendolyn Wollney

    Wow, this is such important work. I almost wish I was in Vet school today and could do this kind of internship! I salute you, Steve, and all the other forward thinking doctors there for the time, courage, and foresight to establish these pathways for the future generations.

Leave a Comment

Once your comment is approved, your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Other stories You may like