COVID19 – a manifestation of the biodiversity crisis

March 20th, 2020

Ecologists are blue in the face telling people that all life depends upon biodiversity and that we depend upon the natural world for food, clothing and building materials and so on. Yet this self-evident dependence has to-date been far from evident to many.

The sixth mass extinction has played second fiddle to the climate crisis and even that has struggled to gain traction as an issue warranting urgent action. As Covid19 has cast its deadly shadow across the globe, many of us have felt despondency.

This is not only due to the terrible impacts of the virus but is also harboured in the knowledge that for the foreseeable future the attention so urgently required to deal with our environmental woes will be elsewhere.

Instead, all the resources of the state will be mobilised in fighting a disease which is likely to have originated in wild bats in China or which is possibly linked to the multi-billion euro global trade in wildlife.

Wildlife trade

Many trafficked species are rare or endangered, such as the pangolin, a type of scaly anteater, that has been suggested as a possible source of COVID-19 but nobody knows for sure at this stage.

What is clear, however, is that that pangolins are among the most trafficked animal in the world with up to a quarter of a million individuals seized by authorities between 2011 and 2013, a figure that the WWF says is just the tip of the iceberg.  

There are eight species found in Asia and Africa and all of them are threatened with extinction, some critically so. Pangolin meat is considered a delicacy in East Asia while their scales are ground up and used in folk remedies. It’s probably fair to say that pangolins, like all other species, are also vital to the health of the ecosystem in which they evolved over millions of years.

Yet we know that those ecosystems are collapsing, not only due to the great vanishing of species like the pangolin but also the appropriation of entire natural habitats for humans wants. Tropical forests, coral reefs and polar ice caps are just some of the complex ecosystems that we are watching collapse at frightening speed.

We look on as a cascade of disasters unfold month-to-month (fires in the Amazon and Australia, ice-sheets collapsing, even the mass dying of dolphins along the west coast of Ireland) but our societies struggle to see these individual events as a part of a wider unravelling.

Graphic: Wildlife Conservation Society

‘Stop Destroying Nature’

The Wildlife Conservation Society (WSC) in the United States has issued some very useful statements in the last week on COVID-19 and its intimate connection to our biodiversity crisis. Zoonoses are pathogens such as bacteria or viruses which pass from wild animals to humans and it is estimated that millions of deaths each year can be attributed to them.

The WSC state that 60 per cent of emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic and of more than 30 new pathogens recorded in humans in the past three decades, fully 75 per cent have originated in wild animals.

Increasingly these diseases pass to humans via our domestic animals, themselves typically kept in crowded, stressed or unsanitary conditions. The WSC conclude that to halt this we must: “close live animal markets that sell wildlife; strengthen efforts to combat trafficking of wild animals within countries and across borders; and work to change dangerous wildlife consumption behaviours.”

An infographic they produced also admonishes us to “Stop Destroying Nature” as humans push ever deeper into habitats that until recently went virtually undisturbed for millions of years. We have emptied them of their animals and converted forests and wetlands to farmland. The wildlife that survives is coming into ever closer contact with us in the post-natural, human-dominated landscape.

Opportunity to change

On the 5th of March, China moved to eliminate the consumption for food of wild animals. On March 13th Vietnam followed suit. Let’s hope this is permanent and enforced.

Last October, China banned all fishing in the mighty Yangzte River following the collapse of fish populations and the declared extinction of the Chinese Paddlefish – among the largest of freshwater fish – and Yangtze River Dolphin, the most recent big mammal to be declared extinct.

One of the world’s great rivers, the Yangtze is a cornerstone of Chinese history and culture, yet its ecological collapse has passed with little notice in the outside world. It is fair to say that the extinction crisis is tearing the heart out of all our cultures and traditions while we now know it is also directly threatening our loved ones through the infection of this deadly virus.

Humans are not good at joining the dots. It is widely accepted among health professionals that a virus like COVID-19 was anticipated. It is also accepted that there are more like it on the way. The links between our health and the health of the natural world around us are routinely ignored.

Yet, if we can see these connections, if we can see the urgency of restoring nature for our own benefit as well as other species, then maybe we stand a chance of containing the next one.

By Padraic Fogarty

Padraic is a Campaign Officer with the Irish Wildlife Trust and Author of ‘Whittled Away’ – Ireland’s Vanishing Nature