Opinion: Effective conservation can help stop the next public health crisis

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An animal care team at a wildlife refuge in Hawaii. Photo by: USFWS - Pacific Region / CC BY-NC

COVID-19 has spread around the world, leaving devastation in its wake and social and economic upheaval before our eyes. These dramatic shifts also mean that the media’s attention has shifted from focusing on the zoonotic genesis of the disease to the impact on people’s health and the health of the global economy. This focus will likely shift again to how the economy can recover and the necessary changes to public health systems in light of COVID-19.

The fact that this disease was first transmitted to humans from an animal — with the ancestral host likely a bat — has now become a footnote of the pandemic.

However, the nature of zoonotic diseases and their associated risks should not be forgotten. Globally, it is estimated that these infectious diseases are responsible for about 1 billion cases of human illness and millions of human deaths every year. From SARS to bird flu, Ebola to HIV, swine flu to the coronavirus — these epidemics and pandemics whose names suddenly enter the common lexicon, all started in animals. Indeed, 60% of emerging diseases reported globally are zoonotic. Of these zoonotic diseases, almost three-quarters have wildlife origins.

A vaccine might help prevent a further COVID-19 outbreak, [but] it cannot prevent the next unknown zoonotic epidemic or pandemic.

As governments respond to the coronavirus outbreak, tackling the spread of pathogens which originate in animals should be a long-term priority. Millions of dollars are currently being poured into research to find a vaccine to protect ourselves from COVID-19 — but this can only be part of the solution. We must address the root cause of the problem and put in place measures to help society mitigate, to the extent possible, the risks posed by unknown zoonotic diseases in the coming decades.

These risks are becoming greater due to the ever-increasing interface between humans and wild ecosystems and organisms. And this hits the crux of the issue: we do not treat the interface between humans and wildlife wisely, which in turn makes the emergence of as-yet-unidentified pathogens more likely. Both the endless expansion of the human footprint into nature and associated destruction of intact ecosystems and the increasing trade of wild animals — legal or illegal — all over the world have significantly escalated the public health threat from zoonotic diseases.

Commercial wildlife trade creates an ideal interface for infectious diseases crossing from animals to humans, particularly when the trade is of wild mammals and birds for human consumption. It involves the capture, transport, and containment of wild animals causing stress, injury, and compromised immune systems. Live and dead animals of multiple species — often both wild and domestic — are kept in close quarters where saliva, blood, urine, and other bodily fluids can mix together and come into contact with humans. Such conditions, in legal or illegal trade, are potentially incubating new diseases and bolstering their interspecies transmission.

This high-risk environment is one of the most deleterious bridges created by people over the natural barriers that previously separated humans and wild animals, and the pathogens those animals may carry.

Sadly, it is often the poorest who suffer the ramifications of this trade. Demand for animals is driven by an increasing population, shifting global socio-economic norms, and increased globalization of trade and markets. Many of these wild animal trades are to supply “luxury” demand, with little to no benefits to local communities who suffer the brunt of the consequences of associated ecological devastation and the health, social, and economic damage that outbreaks bring.

This is why the link between conservation and public health cannot be ignored: the danger posed by wildlife trade for human consumption is a massive global public health and economic liability. And while a vaccine might help prevent a further COVID-19 outbreak, it cannot prevent the next unknown zoonotic epidemic or pandemic. But, conservation could.

Governments around the world should work together on a series of key steps to help increase effective conservation, helping to significantly decrease the chances of a future zoonotic disease spillover event — like the one we have over the past few months.

Firstly, we must end the commercial trade in wildlife for human consumption, particularly of birds and mammals. This ban would also see the end of such wild animals traded for consumption in large urban markets, which serve as super high-risk interfaces for emergence of novel diseases such as SARS and COVID-19.

Secondly, we should redouble our efforts to combat the trafficking of wild animals within countries and across borders. With exotic animals going to the highest bidder, this has quickly become a vast money-making business, but zoonotic disease risks have been neglected by the profits.

Thirdly, we must change dangerous wildlife consumption behaviors, especially in cities, where wildlife is a luxury item and plenty of alternative protein sources are available and diseases can spread more easily in highly populated areas.

Lastly, as ecological degradation increases the overall risk of zoonotic disease outbreaks originating from wildlife, we should enhance and expand our investment in the establishment and management of protected areas and prevent them from being used for large industrial extraction, development, or land conversion activities.

This is possible with help from high-income countries. U.K. aid is already casting a shining light on what can be done through funding critical conservation projects across the world which, in turn, are helping to protect us all against future outbreaks.

For example, the Department for International Development’s biodiversity fund is reducing demand for illegally-traded animal products, helping communities foster new industries, and helping to train anti-poaching rangers. Alongside this, initiatives like the Partnerships For Forests program are giving communities in Africa and Southeast Asia alternatives to clearing forests and hunting wildlife as ways to make a living.

It is also encouraging that some countries have already taken actions to address the wildlife trade in the face of rising risks to public health. In February, China instituted a national ban on the hunting, trade, transportation, or consumption of terrestrial wild animal species. Discussions are taking place in Vietnam to introduce policies to tackle the wildlife trade, and Singapore has started to review markets that trade in wildlife.

But decisive results can only come with collective action from across the globe. COVID-19 and other zoonotic events alert us repeatedly to the damage if we do not manage the interface between human and nature properly. That is why we must invest in conservation and ensure such programs are fully supported and implemented to try to prevent the next wild animal-transmitted global health crisis.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Dr. Aili Kang

    Dr. Aili Kang is an award-winning conservationist and ecologist, leading on strategy and operations for the Wildlife Conservation Society in China. In 2009, she received the Society for Conservation Biology’s Early Career Conservationist Award for her work on conservation of mammals in the Tibetan steppe of China.