12/15/2010 10:32 am ET | Updated Jun 29, 2011

Guest Post: Ethan Zohn - Saving the Hotbeds of Pharmaceutical Innovation Before They're Gone

Ethan Zohn, once a professional soccer player, proved he has what it takes to "outwit" and "outlast" when he won the reality T.V. show "Survivor: Africa." In 2009, Ethan was diagnosed with cancer—Hodgkin's lymphoma—which might have killed him if it weren't for a drug derived from an African flower called the rosy periwinkle.

Now, Ethan wants to help preserve natural areas in developing countries, as he explores the links between conservation and human health in this op-ed.

Guest Post: Save a Species, Save a Life

by Ethan Zohn

The world of professional soccer certainly has its share of stars—players who've elevated themselves to hero status with an incredible save or game-winning goal. But as anyone who's ever played soccer will tell you, this beautiful game truly is a team sport.

Ethan Zohn

In fact, the lessons I learned as a player and coach on the soccer field proved invaluable both as a competitor in "Survivor: Africa" and in my later struggle with cancer. Yet while a reality show competition and a battle with Hodgkin's lymphoma may not seem to have much in common at first glance, I was able to survive both due to an invaluable assist from nature.

According to an ever growing body of research, however, the last remnants of the world's natural areas are quickly disappearing. And I'm now speaking out in an effort to get others to join me in the effort to save these last wild areas.

It all started on Survivor: Africa
I'm alive today due to a drug derived from the rosy periwinkle, a rare African flower found on the island of Madagascar. Yet in 2002, while competing in "Survivor: Africa," this delicate pink flower was the farthest thing from my mind.

We were expected to live off the land, and survival meant working with nature. We discovered that the thorny acacia plants could keep predators away from our camp in the Shaba Natural Reserve. And we learned the best times to drink from the local watering hole—sharing it with the wildlife which also relied on this tiny stream to survive.

Cancer changes everything
Then, in 2009, any thought of Africa vanished when I was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma.

Being treated with chemotherapy drugs made me feel like a living laboratory. Yet, I was comforted when I discovered that one of these drugs, vincristine, was actually derived from Africa's rosy periwinkle. But unlike the watering hole in the African nature reserve I depended on, the rosy periwinkle and countless other plants and animals are not protected.

The last remnants of the world's natural areas are quickly disappearing. Over the last 300 years, global forest area has shrunk by almost half. Today more than 16,000 species—plants and animals alike—are in danger of extinction. This could have a disastrous impact on human health.

Half of all prescription drugs developed in the past 25 years are based on natural sources like rainforest plants and marine sponges. Indeed, chemical compounds synthesized from nature have provided the basis for the drugs that today help millions of Americans combat a myriad of diseases—including cancer.

Possible cures destroyed
As ecosystems and species are destroyed, the habitats of natural compounds that could one day prove useful to medicine are lost forever. In fact, the United Nations Environment Programme predicts that with current extinction rates we could see the loss of one major new drug every two years. And that's why we must act now.

Save species, save lives
Currently there is a bill in Congress, the Global Conservation Act of 2010, which seeks to address extinction and natural resource depletion worldwide. Among other things, this bill will help protect millions of square miles of land and sea, stop the worst wildlife trafficking operations and address illegal and unregulated fishing around the world.

Please join me in my effort to urge Congress to pass the Global Conservation Act. You can help by writing your representative or senator and asking them to support this measure to help save endangered places and natural areas around the world. We may be fighting the clock in this struggle, but if we can come together as a team in facing this challenge we might yet be able to turn the tide.

I won "Survivor: Africa," and I've won my battle against cancer. In each case, though, I didn't do it alone. I had the most unlikely of partners: a trickle of water, a flower.

But now nature needs some help. And I need yours—because life, like soccer, is a team sport, and when you can transform a group of individuals into a team you can make miracles happen. If you need proof, just take a look at Spain, which defied the odds to win the World Cup.

Ethan Zohn is the winner of "Survivor: Africa," a cancer survivor and co-founder of Grassroots Soccer. Ethan is currently working with the Alliance for Global Conservation and other cancer survivors to raise awareness of the links between international conservation and treatments for deadly diseases.

Alliance for Global Conservation
Wildlife Conservation Society
Pew Envrionment Group
Nature Conservancy

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