Land use change is a key driver of emerging infectious diseases. Conversion of native habitat leads to biodiversity loss, higher abundance of some zoonotic host species, and increased human-wildlife contacts, with cascading health consequences for individual humans and communities. Environmental change is a pervasive feature of landscapes globally and will disproportionately affect marginalized communities that already experience a high burden of zoonoses. Reforestation and planting of native forests has been proposed to mitigate zoonotic risk in changing landscapes, but the implications of these interventions have not been formally tested.
In Uganda, forest loss (9% since 2000) and annual human population growth (~3.5% pa) is representative of many other developing countries. Zoonoses account for >50% of severe febrile illnesses in the region. Globally, rodents are an important group of zoonotic hosts and they thrive in anthropogenic landscapes. Pilot studies in the region show high rodent host diversity and low abundance of nematode pathogens in forested ecosystems. Across the region, native woodlands are being converted to small-holder agricultural fields that also support a lower diversity of rodents but have higher burdens of zoonotic nematode pathogens. In 2012, there were several communities that planted native trees to improve soil condition and increase local biodiversity. These replanted forests have already been shown to provide important ecosystem services, but it is unknown how they impact rodent diversity and zoonotic pathogen risk in neighboring human communities.
This project will investigate how reforestation affects rodent communities and their associated nematode parasite communities by using an innovative field methodology to understand differences in contact networks and implications for pathogen transmission. Field sites will be chosen to examine how rodent communities and infections differ between three discrete land cover classes: 1) reforested plots, 2) intact native forests, and 3) converted small-holder agricultural sites. The aim of this study is to improve our understanding of how reforestation and woodland creation can be leveraged to reduce zoonotic disease risk and improve ecosystem health.