Over 70% of infectious diseases originate from wildlife; the flu originally came from pigs and birds. Tuberculosis originated in cattle, and ebola, in chimpanzees or bats. Zoonotic viruses, which jump from animals to humans, are becoming more common among humans, and account for millions of deaths every year around the world. And the spread of zoonotic diseases is exacerbated by wildlife trafficking, wildlife markets, habitat destruction and climate change.
Coronaviruses are common in many species of animals, such as camels, cattle, civet cats and bats. On occasions, the virus strains develop a mutation that allows them to survive in a different species, such as humans.
Now, as the new coronavirus continues to spread through over 170 countries, most people believe it originated in a wet market in Wuhan in China, but scientists are still at work trying to trace the virus’s origin. “It is not a matter of tracing the host species, but to determine how the virus jumped from animals to humans,” Andrew Peters, an associate professor of wildlife health and pathology at the Charles Sturt University, New South Wales, said.
Unregulated wet markets like the one in Wuhan keep – rather kept – live, exotic animals in cages on site for slaughter and sale. Many wet markets are known to provide cover to smugglers to traffic endangered species. Poor sanitary conditions in these markets further encourages the spread of disease among different animal species, as well as increases opportunities for zoonotic viruses to infect humans.
“We need to rethink the way we interact with the natural world,” Samira Mubareka, a microbiologist and infectious diseases physician at the Sunnybrook Hospital, Toronto. “It is critical to understand the importance of preserving biodiversity and not encroaching the habitats that would diminish that biodiversity, and put us at higher risk as well as the animals at higher risk.”
“Humans have encroached almost every corner of the planet. The more we disrupt the habitat of wildlife, the more chances to increase our proximity to these viruses. And we are more likely to select for some mutations that will benefit the viruses in terms of replicating in the humans.”
“Today, 7.8 billion humans exploit almost each and every ecosystem of the planet. Livestock have followed humans in most of these ecosystems and are now far more numerous than wild vertebrates,” Frederic Baudron, a systems agronomist at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre, said in an interview. For example, there are 4.7 billion cattle, pigs, sheep and goats and 23.7 billion chickens on Earth. “We live on an increasingly ‘cultivated planet’, with new species assemblages and new opportunities for pathogens to move from one species to another.”
However, the biodiversity crisis is seldom considered a global issue and often not a pressing one, and conservationists say it isn’t written about as often as it should be. “Media coverage for the biodiversity crisis is eight-times lower than for the climate crisis”, according to Baudron. “We need to reduce the frequency of pandemics like COVID-19 by conserving and restoring biodiversity globally, most crucially in disease hotspots.”
As Lee Hannah, a senior climate scientist, told Conservation International, “Protecting nature is the first step to prevent future outbreaks.”
Also read: Could COVID-19 End The Wildlife Trade?
This said, conserving global biodiversity is not enough. “We really need to have robust wildlife surveillance system in place,” Isabelle-Anne Bisson, a conservation biologist with the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, Washington D.C., told Science. “Wildlife health is an important signal of environmental change” and “not just for infectious disease,” Kathleen Alexander, a disease ecologist and wildlife veterinarian at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, said in the same report. “Wildlife health is a very useful tool for predicting threats to human health.”
In a world that increasingly threatens its wildlife, conservation has a mission-critical role to play in safeguarding them as well as alleviating potential future pandemics.
Abhijit Mohanty is an Indian development professional currently based in Cameroon, Central Africa. He has extensively worked with indigenous communities in India, Nepal and Cameroon on issues of their land, forest and water.