Cornell-Smithsonian partnership aims to save wildlife

With more than 1 in 4 species at risk of extinction, scientists at Cornell and the Smithsonian Institution are pioneering new approaches and technologies to address this global challenge and create a world of rich biodiversity with healthy environments supporting people and wildlife.

This fundamental concept – that the health and well-being of the planet’s wildlife and humans are intimately entwined – is driving an expanding collaboration between Cornell’s Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future (ACSF) and the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI).

At a May 5 event in New York City, leaders from the two institutions described the partnership, which started in 2008 as a joint graduate training program and has grown to include more than 40 researchers at both institutions working together to conserve endangered species, advise foreign governments on sustainable economic development and develop new protocols to archive biological collections.

“This collaboration is an example of what can be achieved when two great institutions work together to address compelling world problems,” said David Skorton, outgoing president of Cornell University and incoming secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, speaking at the May 5 event, held at the home of Cornell trustee emeritus Kevin McGovern. “We are creating the next generation of leaders in conservation and pushing the boundaries of how we think about conservation.”

In addition to a joint graduate training program, where students learn and develop technologies in Cornell labs and Smithsonian research centers around the world, the collaboration now includes rapid response research in global hot spots. A team of researchers assembled within days, for example, to travel to Myanmar to work with government officials on a strategy for economic growth that safeguards that nation’s rich natural resources.

“Wildlife conservation is not just about working to save wildlife,” said Alex Travis, associate professor of reproductive biology and ACSF faculty director of environment. “It is about helping people so we can ease the pressure on wildlife. We need a new generation of conservation scientists who have expertise in genetics, ecology and physiology, and a grounding in social sciences and economics.”

Graduate student Jennifer Nagashima described her experience in the joint Ph.D. program, where she learned “from the expertise of two institutions, with state-of-the-art technologies … and experience in both academic and public, government arenas.”

For the past few years, Nagashima has been working to develop assisted reproduction in domestic dogs, with applications for their wild and endangered cousins, such as African painted dogs and Ethiopian wolves. In captivity, some of these species are few in number, and their genetic information needs to be preserved. Development of a procedure like in vitro fertilization for canine species enables scientists and zoo curators to combine eggs and sperm from captive wolves housed hundreds of miles apart to promote long-term survival of the species.

“My work has the potential to be a huge breakthrough for endangered canines,” Nagashima said. “No other program in the world could have given me both the cutting-edge training and connections to a network of conservation practitioners.”

But Nagashima says her training in new veterinary techniques alone won’t be enough to save wildlife, a view underscored by the Cornell and Smithsonian researchers who are the creative force behind the joint training program from which she graduated.

“We have to understand how these animals function in an ecosystem that includes humans and craft solutions that include this much broader thinking,” said Pierre Comizzoli, research scientist at SCBI’s Center for Species Survival who, with Travis, heads the partnership.

Lauren Chambliss is director of communications for the David R. Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future.

Media Contact

Joe Schwartz