I’m delighted to be handing today’s post over to guest blogger Sophie Johnson of Born Wild, Stay Wild blog. Sophie explores how human activity and impact on the environment (and wildlife!) has contributed to the current global pandemic — and how, if we re-imagine nature, we might prevent another outbreak like Covid-19.
World Environment Day guest post by Sophie Johnson
Was it a bat? A snake? A pangolin? Whilst the source of Coronavirus remains unclear, what we do know for a fact is that this was a man-made pandemic.
Zoonotic diseases such as Ebola, MERS, HIV, Bovine Tuberculosis and Rabies are responsible for over 2 billion cases of human illness and over 2 million human deaths each year. For as long as humans have domesticated animals, diseases have been traded (e.g. the flu comes from pigs and birds, tuberculosis originated in cattle, Ebola comes from chimpanzees or bats).
Human interference with nature and ecosystems that allowed COVID-19 to jump from animals (posssibly snakes, bats or pangolins) to humans has rapidly escalated in the past 50 years. This has created the perfect conditions for pandemics to arise again and again.
Here are the facts:
- The US Centers for Disease Control & Prevention estimate that 75% of new emerging diseases that affect humans originate in animals
- Wildlife populations have declined by 60% in the past 50 years. Over that same period, diseases that spread from animals to humans have quadrupled
This is not a coincidence.
Fundamentally, we need to re-imagine our relationship with nature. But, how?
1. Decrease our activity in forests
In the past 50 years, there has been an enormous shift in thinking from ‘the forest is dangerous – avoid it’ to ‘the forest is an economical gold mine – let’s destroy more of it every day’.
However, what we didn’t consider in our shift in behaviour is the devastating global impact that man’s activity in forests would have on the spread of disease.
Biodiversity—the health of the entire ecosystem—can restrain pathogens before they ever leave the wild. A healthy ecosystem resistant to disease, is one in which there are diverse species and sufficient space for healthy animal populations. In diverse ecosystems well separated from human habitations, viruses ebb and flow without ever having a chance to make it to the big time.
In other words – when animals have room to roam, they can’t pass viruses onto humans.
When human activities such as logging and mining disrupt and degrade these ecosystems, animals are forced closer together, creating perfect conditions for viruses to jump from animal to human, and spread.
If you take down a big forest, you will tend to lose its biggest predators first (e.g. tigers, chimps, orangutans). What’s left behind are the smaller critters (e.g. rats, bats, mosquitoes) that live fast, reproduce in large numbers, and have immune systems more capable of carrying disease without succumbing to it.
When there are only a few species left, they’re good at carrying the virus. The virus will inevitably seek a new host to spread to. It will choose whatever it can, and it will choose humans. We are mammals too, remember.
Wild animals that have adapted well to human-dominated environments (e.g. Rodents, bats and primates) also share more viruses with people, implicated as hosts for nearly 75% of all viruses. Bats alone have been linked to diseases like SARS, Nipah, Marburg and Ebola.
Scientists have found a strong correlation between habitat destruction and emerging infectious disease. In the last 40 years, they have recorded 330 odd new diseases coming out of disturbed nature.
However, reducing activity in forests will require an economically beneficial alternative to those communities working in the forests. We need conservation tools that not only protect the richness of nature but also bring financial incentive. Lee Hannah, Senior climate change scientist, Conservation International said: “There is a whole suite of possible conservation tools that governments can implement to protect biodiversity while [economically] benefiting from the land, including protected areas, national parks, community conservancies and indigenous-managed conservation areas.”
2. Ban wet markets around the world, permanently
The evidence isn’t conclusive, but it’s extremely likely that the new Coronavirus leapt from wildlife to humans in a seafood and meat market in Wuhan, China. Selling an array of live peacocks, rats, foxes, crocodiles, wolf cubs, turtles, snakes, wild pigs and more, wet markets are the perfect breeding ground for rare Zoonotic diseases such as COVID-19.
The animal ‘pic n mix’ would have allowed the virus to pass from a bat or pangolin onto another species before it was able to infect a human. Stressed animals shed more viruses and are more susceptible to infections, and cages are often stacked on top of each other, facilitating exposure.
The crazy thing is, we’ve known this for years, but the wet markets around the world continue to bustle. The SARS epidemic, also caused by a Coronavirus, began in China with the consumption of a catlike animal called the palm civet. The MERS epidemic began with a Coronavirus transmitted to humans from camels in the Middle East.
Currently, China has temporarily banned the selling of wildlife at wet markets, and conservationists hope that this may become permanent. However, as we’ve seen before with SARS in 2002 & 2003, China banned wet markets, but within 2 to 3 years they were back.
After each crisis passes, attention turns away from the trade that brought the disease to humans.
Scientists have been calling for permanent restrictions for at least three decades. Without tighter legislation, It is only a matter of time until the next virus emerges. However, this will require a fundamental shift in cultural behaviour around the world.
Countries involved need to forget the economic interests of the trade, and focus on the public health of 7.8 billion people. “This issue is not just a conservation issue anymore,” said Grace Ge Gabriel, Asia regional director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare. “It’s a public health issue, a biosafety issue and a national security issue.”
3. Increase regulation on global wildlife trade
If we want to prevent epidemics that begin in animals, we ultimately need to halt the global trade in wildlife. However, right now a blanket ban on the entire trade is unfeasible – it’s a multi-billion dollar industry so a ban would only drive up black market prices and increase incentives for poaching. Therefore, we need to find a happy medium.
A study published last October estimated that the wildlife trade includes 5,600 species, nearly one-fifth of the world’s known vertebrate animals. The main issue currently is that although conservation bodies have made it very difficult to import and export charismatic mega-fauna such as tigers and lions, nobody is paying attention to the regulation on the smaller fauna such as pangolins, bats and snakes, which are the route cause of most of the epidemics arising today.
Many species are a regular part of our daily lives such as imported seafood for dinner and exotic pet birds, frogs and aquarium fishes. This is why ending the legal trade in wildlife seems unlikely, and why controlling disease at the source is the best way to minimise the risk to public health.
This could involve a ‘clean trade’ system similar to that used for livestock whereby animals are tested either before transport or at the border, and are accompanied by animal health certificates.
4. Include health of planet & animals in the study of human health
After yet another pandemic, we can no longer see humans as separate from nature.
Before now, we’ve had human health studied by doctors, animal health studied by vets, and environmental health studied by zoologists. However, no one has put it together – human health depends on the health of our environment and animals and vice versa.
We are dramatically affecting our global food production system, the quality of the air we breathe and of the water we drink, our exposure to infectious diseases, and even the habitability of the places where we live. Changes to natural life support systems are already impacting our health and COVID-19 is the wake up call we need to start understanding, acting and collaborating upon these challenges to safeguard our health.
We have to consider the health of the environment, human and animals as one – in the form of planetary health. The Planetary Health Alliance is a consortium of over 200 universities, NGOs, research institutes, and government entities around the world committed to understanding and addressing global environmental change and its health impacts.
Please watch the below video if you have time, it’s only 4 minutes and it’s an eye-opener!
5. Educate & Incentivise
If we’re going to see real, long term change in our relationship with nature, particularly the wildlife trade, we need to raise awareness and change the behaviour of both suppliers and consumers. However, the only way to succeed in a solution is to provide financial incentive and a sustainable alternative to those currently reliant on it for a living.
With urbanisation, bush meat has become a popular delicacy in the likes of China, the US and even the UK. Through this, hunters are earning huge profits. For example, hunting a pangolin in a forest would cost around $5. By the time that animal gets to Lagos, it’ll be $100 and then through international trade to China, it could be sold for up to $250 in Beijing.
The trade is a gold mine for hunters and traders, so we need to strengthen both the financial and non-financial rewards for protecting and sustainably managing wildlife, and create alternative livelihood opportunities e.g. bee-keeping, or craft development.
Conservation protected areas of forest and nature reserves can help local economies by attracting tourists who spend money in nearby communities and by protecting ecosystem services which increase productivity (such as water provision, flood protection, generation of non-timber forest products).
A great example of successful community-based natural resource management is in Namibia, which has communal conservancies covering more than 14% of the country that involve over 200,000 people and generate US$ 2.5 million every year, according to the International Institute for Environment and Development of the UK. In the process the country’s wildlife resources have recovered, while poaching and other illegal activities have decreased.
6. Stop passing the blame
I’d like to conclude by recognising that this is not just a problem in some parts of the world. We, as Westerners, need to shift the attitude of “this is someone else’s problem far, far away”. No, this is a global issue which we all play a part in.
We are the ones demanding palm oil and high-end furniture which in turn demands that the forests come down. “We want the mahoganies, so we need to take down forests, to take down forests you need the roads,” said John Vidal, Environmental Journalist, Guardian. “These roads act as the entry point for hunters for the wildlife trade. The whole thing spirals.”
Palm oil is in nearly everything – it’s in close to 50% of the packaged products we find in supermarkets, everything from pizza, doughnuts and chocolate, to deodorant, shampoo, toothpaste and lipstick.
Kate Jones, Ecology and Biodiversity Scientist, UCL, stated that Change must come from both rich and poor societies. “Demand for wood, minerals and resources from the global north leads to the degraded landscapes and ecological disruption that drives disease. We must think about global bio-security, find the weak points and bolster the provision of health care in developing countries. Otherwise we can expect more of the same.”
It’s time to re-imagine nature
We can’t predict where the next pandemic will come from – the only certain thing is that the next one will come, unless we re-imagine our relationship with nature.
About the Author
Sophie Johnson is a British Zoology graduate and conservation blogger, keen to raise awareness for the biggest environmental issues of today. She has undertaken conservation projects in Madagascar, Zimbabwe and Vietnam, and has collaborated with NGOs globally. Last year, she lived and taught English in Vietnam, and prior to this, was an intern for BBC Wildlife Magazine.