At first glance, the crises of endangered species and pandemics may seem separate. But they are, in fact, interrelated as a recent Foreign Policy analysis outlines.
According to the piece, authored by Lindsey Kennedy and Nathan Paul Southern, “the trade of illegal wildlife products is everywhere, but the pandemic offered a brief opportunity to crack down. Closed borders and temporary lockdowns offered a chance to implement environmental protections while drastically curbing cross-border flows of wildlife trafficking and illegal logging. Spooked by the probable link between the wildlife trade and COVID-19, China briefly suspended the buying and selling of wild animals and introduced a list of more than 900 protected species, including pangolins and pandas, with hunters and traffickers now facing fines and prison time.
“Since the start of the COVID-19 crisis, global seizures of pangolin scales, ivory, and rhino horns have dropped by one-fifth. Reduced tourist footfall and a temporary reduction in emissions were good news for at-risk animals, plants, forests, and threatened biodiversity.”
The spectre of wet markets – environments where fresh animal produce is sold in a non-supermarket setting – in Wuhan, China, where the COVID-19 pandemic is believed to have originated, did indeed spark a global reckoning. As National Geographic noted last year, “close interactions with wild animals have caused numerous disease outbreaks in humans, including Ebola and HIV…buying, selling, and slaughtering wild animals for food is one way an animal-borne disease may infect people. Viruses can spread more easily if animals in markets are sick or kept in dirty, cramped conditions, such as in stacked cages.
“When animals are under duress, viral pathogens can intermingle, swap bits of their genetic code, and perhaps mutate in ways that make them more transmissible between species. In the case of respiratory diseases, such as COVID-19, the virus can jump to food handlers or customers through exposure to an animal’s bodily fluids.”
Indeed, the connection between animals and humans as it pertains to public health is an issue Health Issues India covered recently. We cited a study which stated that “zoonotic diseases have been increasing globally as well as in India. Of 1407 human pathogens, 816 were zoonotic…These include 538 bacteria and rickettsia, 317 fungi, 208 viruses, 287 helminths, and 57 protozoa. The study also highlighted that as many as 177 (thirteen percent) of the total pathogens were emerging or reemerging, and of these 130 (75 percent) were classified as zoonoses.”
The preservation of endangered species is an issue which must factor into the conversation. However, the financial fallout of COVID-19 has led to an uptick, Foreign Policy notes in its commentary. “Reduced tourist footfall and a temporary reduction in emissions were good news for at-risk animals, plants, forests, and threatened biodiversity,” the article outlines. “But the economic fallout of these measures also fostered the conditions that fuel poaching, logging, and environmental destruction in the first place.
“Poaching and wildlife trafficking flourish in times of economic hardship, when communities living in close proximity to endangered species are left with few alternative sources of income. For many of them, tourism offered an alternative—but the unexpected and devastating impact of the pandemic pushed communities that rely on tourists deeper into poverty.”
Biodiversity is crucial – including in the context of public health. “Researchers have increasingly raised alarms about the infectious disease risks of biodiversity loss,” said Greenpeace East Asia Forests and Oceans Project Manager Pan Wenjing. “These viruses are naturally isolated away from us by ecosystems that provide a buffer zone. We’re steamrolling right through that ecological buffer. The Chinese government last year took a few decisive steps forward with bans on wildlife breeding and consumption for food. But more needs to be done, in China and elsewhere. Global health crises like the COVID-19 pandemic will happen more often if we fail to protect natural ecosystems globally.”
As the Foreign Policy commentary outlines, “the loss of endangered species isn’t only an ecological disaster in the making; it may also lead to another pandemic. Close contact between humans and wild animals creates the conditions needed for new zoonotic (cross-species) diseases like COVID-19, Ebola, severe acute respiratory syndrome, and bird flu to emerge in the first place. The World Health Organization estimates sixty percent of all known infectious diseases and 75 percent of emerging infectious agents are zoonotic. The more humans poach, log, trade, and consume wildlife, the greater the risk becomes.”
The report quotes Ginette Hemley, senior vice president of wildlife conservation at the World Wildlife Fund as saying “when you start to degrade that interface between people and nature, you have the risk of increased spillover of what could become pandemic diseases. So we hope that this experience can enlighten policymakers to understand the need for conservation on a grander scale.”
The environmental crisis is a multifaceted one with far-reaching implications. In the case of India’s Western Ghats, as an article published in The Conversation noted, “the mountains are teeming with life. Though they cover only a small part of India’s total land area, the Ghats are home to more than thirty percent of the country’s species of plants, fish, reptiles, birds and mammals, including both wild elephants and tigers. Its combination of unique species and habitat loss means Unesco has recognised it as one of eight global “hottest hotspots” of biodiversity.”
Preservation of endangered species is crucial to our ecosystem and our health. In its closing paragraph, the Foreign Policy report makes this starkly clear. “Unless international investment in conservation becomes a serious priority—and fast—the damage to biodiversity, dependent communities, the stability of protected regions, and overarching efforts to fight climate change may never be reversed,” the authors write. “And having survived one zoonotic outbreak that crippled the global economy, killing 4 million people and counting, we’ll be hurtling rapidly toward the next one.”