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Student Spotlight: Tong Wu

January 30, 2018

Tong Wu is a doctoral candidate on the Ecology, Economics, and Ethics of the Environment (4E) track in the Biology and Society program. He started at ASU in 2013 with Dr. Charles Perrings. For the past four years his research has focused on the risks to human and livestock health from avian influenzas, with particular geographic focus on China, the largest country to be hit by these epidemics.    

Understanding and managing avian influenza epidemics requires an interdisciplinary perspective. From the population and behavioral ecology of migratory waterfowl to the economic incentives underlying the decision-making of farmers and market-goers, there is a network of risk factors behind every outbreak. The interventions undertaken by policymakers should account for these myriad factors in order to be successful over the long run.

Over the past several months, Tong’s research has focused on how migratory waterfowl transmit avian influenza to poultry, and what can be done to mitigate this occurrence.  To that end, he has been collecting and computing a wide range of epidemiological, ecological, demographic, economic, and agricultural data in China. Tong has also had the opportunity to make excursions into the field, to locations where avian influenza risk factors converge.

One such location is Lashihai Lake in southwestern China, at the foothills of the Himalayas, in a landscape of sprawling farmlands overlooked by richly forested mountains. A Ramsar-designated “wetland of international importance” and identified by Bird Life International as an “important bird and biodiversity area,” Lashihai is home to tens-of-thousands of wintering migratory birds. It is also surrounded by tens of thousands of farming households and their livestock, including free-ranging poultry. From the standpoint of avian influenza risk, this is an inauspicious combination.  

Tong visited Lashihai in late September, before the bulk of the wintering birds arrive. The water level in the lake, however, had already begun to recede to its winter low, revealing a patchwork of wetland vegetation. The tall reeds swayed with the wind while far out in the lake, a few lone fishermen in traditional wooden boats plied their trade. There were some waterbirds milling about in the marshes, and a couple of horses – an important beast of burden for the locals – watering at the lake’s edge. However, the local poultry – whether ducks, geese, or chickens – were conspicuous by their absence.  

Locals averred that, as a means to protect the lake from human impact – including degradation and pollution by livestock waste – the thousands of ducks and geese that had once been allowed to forage in the wetland have since been outlawed. The free-ranging chickens have been herded farther up the hillsides, and all other husbandry and agricultural activities are now kept under strict regulation. When asked about avian influenza, a local restaurateur scratched his head and replied that he hadn’t heard about an outbreak in the area in the ten years he’s lived there. Ecological conservation, it seems, can also have the unintended, but welcome, consequence of reducing avian influenza risk.  

More Information: Tong Wu (tong.wu@asu.edu)

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