Human Incursion into Wild Spaces Make Pandemics More Likely
Humanity’s ever more destructive relationship with wild animals and their habitats—as expressed in a global wildlife trade worth billions, the calculated destruction of rainforest for palm oil, the negligence of building solar farms in wildlife reserves, and the collateral damage wrought by urbanization—was a cause of the current pandemic, and, if left unchecked, will drive future ones, according to disease ecology experts.
“The new coronavirus, which has traversed the globe to infect more than one million people, began like so many pandemics and outbreaks before: inside an animal,” writes the Washington Post. At some point, the viral ancestor of COVID-19 leaped from its original animal host (“almost certainly a bat”) to another animal (likely the pangolin, an endangered species “heavily trafficked for its scales”), and then, in what is known as a “spillover event,” on into its first human.
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This transference pattern follows that of a host of other deadly so-called “zoonotic” diseases—including SARS, influenza A, and Ebola—but to blame any of the animal vectors involved would be to profoundly miss the point, the Post says.
“Wild animals have always had viruses coursing through their bodies,” the paper explains. What has changed, thanks to “a global wildlife trade worth billions of dollars, agricultural intensification, deforestation, and urbanization,” is our proximity to wild creatures, and, therefore, to the pathogens they may carry.
“Some 70% of emerging infectious diseases in humans are of zoonotic origin,” notes the Post. “Nearly 1.7 million undiscovered viruses may exist in wildlife.”
With such numbers to hand, disease ecologists like Peter Daszak, president of EcoHealth Alliance, are urging policy-makers to consider the COVID-19 pandemic as a deadly warning: the coronavirus isn’t “a random act of God” but rather a factor of what we do the environment. “Pandemics as a whole are increasing in frequency,” he said. “We need to start connecting that chain and say we need to do these things in a less risky way.”
Imperative to reducing the risk of future virus transfers, say many experts, is the immediate and permanent closure of the kind of “wet market” that has been linked to the original COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan, China. Catering both to subsistence/traditional purposes and a growing taste for exotic meats, wet markets—so named for their inclusion of live (and often brutally stressed and ill) animals alongside butchered ones—present “prime conditions for viral spillover.”
While China did ban the transport and sale of wild animals in January, such prohibitions are only temporary, with wet markets slated to reopen once the pandemic ends. Aili Kang, executive director of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Asia program, said permanent legislation will be needed to put an end to the markets. (Other experts, such as Daszak, counter that a ban might only drive such markets underground, and instead recommend regulation and rigorous ongoing testing for pathogens.)
Also cause for concern is the international trade in exotic pets like reptiles, as these animals are “rarely tested for pathogens that could sicken humans,” said Daszak.
But the harvesting and trade of wild animals is not the only activity putting viral pandemics on the fast track. “Humans increasingly share space with wildlife and alter it in perilous ways,” the Post writes. The ongoing scourge of Nipah virus in Malaysia first emerged in 1998 when “the clearing of rainforests for palm oil and lumber and livestock displaced fruit bats, some of which ended up on new pig farms, where mango and other fruit trees also grew.” The virus infected pigs via bat saliva and feces, then entered the human population through the pigs, providing a “vivid example of spillover fuelled by environmental change and agricultural intensification,” writes the Post.
In its own coverage of the connection between the coronavirus pandemic and humanity’s broken relationship to wild animals, CBC reports that declining biodiversity is also playing a role in the spread of zoonotic pathogens.
“When biodiversity declines—particularly as a result of habitat loss—it doesn’t do so in a random way; certain kinds of species are more likely to disappear than others,” said ecologist Felicia Keesing, professor of biology at Bard College in New York. “The ones that tend to thrive after biodiversity declines are the ones that are also most likely to give us new diseases.” Like rats.
The current pandemic “is about what we’re doing to nature, not about what nature is doing to us,” she added, calling the crisis “a wake-up call for how small the planet really is and how much we need to care for each other, and it.”
Even renewable energy projects, while critical as a climate solution, can in some ways threaten wilderness, parks, and even designated areas of particular biodiversity when they appear in significant numbers. A recent international research project found that “over 2,200 green energy plants have been built within the boundaries of the Earth’s remaining wilderness,” with 17% of them located in “strictly managed protected areas where no development activity at all should occur,” reports BBC, citing a recent study in the journal Global Change Biology. The researchers also flagged that “a further 900 [green energy] plants are now being developed in key areas of biodiversity.”
Germany and Spain alone have together launched more than 250 green energy projects in critical conservation areas, and the global incursion of renewable energy projects into wild spaces is slated to increase “by 42% over the next eight years.”
While acknowledging the risk that their research will “arm” some climate change skeptics, the study authors are firm in their conviction “that greater care must be taken when planning and permitting renewable facilities,” writes the BBC.
“We are not saying that renewables are bad, we just need to put them in the right places,” said senior study James Allan of the University of Amsterdam.