This post was updated on May 13, 2020.
Likely sourced to a live animal and fish market in China, COVID-19 has spread around the world at lightning speed, infecting more than 4.2 million people and killing nearly 300,000 people to date.
Many countries are taking severe measures to stem the virus’s spread, from locking down cities to temporarily shuttering local businesses.
But how will countries prevent future outbreaks?
The first step: Protect nature, says Lee Hannah, Conservation International senior climate change scientist and a world-renowned expert in ecology, the study of how humans interact with nature.
Conservation News spoke to Hannah about how giving nature space could help curb future disease outbreaks.
Question: What does nature have to do with the spread of disease?
Answer: Humans have traded diseases with wildlife for as long as people have domesticated animals from nature (which is a very long time). In fact, many of humanity’s existing diseases originated from animals: the flu comes from pigs and birds, tuberculosis originated in cattle, Ebola comes from chimpanzees or bats.
Ecosystems in nature function similarly to the human body: When they are robust and healthy — which means they have diverse species and space for healthy animal populations — they are more resistant to disease. Thriving ecosystems also provide a variety of benefits to surrounding humanity, from fresh water to food to fertile soil. However, when human activities such as logging and mining disrupt and degrade these ecosystems, animals are forced closer together and are more likely to be stressed or sick, as well as more likely to come into contact with people. In these conditions, diseases bounce back and forth between wildlife populations and humans.
Disturbingly, research projects that animal-borne illnesses are going to become more frequent due to the rapid destruction of nature.
Q: How does humanity's relationship with nature impact pandemics?
A: The most wide-reaching and straightforward issue is the global wildlife trade. This trade puts species in contact with other species — and other diseases — that they likely would have never encountered naturally in the wild.
For example, the COVID-19 strain likely passed from a bat or a pangolin and may have jumped to another species before it was able to infect a human, which is why wild animal markets that sell an array of exotic species in one place are the perfect breeding ground for rare zoonotic diseases. Tropical diseases tend to have animal reservoirs more often than temperate diseases, so taking tropical species and putting them in close contact with people at wild animal markets is flirting with disaster. This exchange of wildlife and wildlife parts is also devastating to nature because it decimates species populations such as elephants and rhinos, which are critical to the health of their respective ecosystems.
On top of this, deforestation rates have soared across the globe, driven largely by agriculture and logging. Not only does this put stress on wildlife habitats, it could accelerate climate change — which could also impact the spread of disease.
Q: What kind of impact?
A: From shifting bird migrations to your morning cup of coffee, climate change complicates just about everything. From a public health perspective, the climate crisis is increasing the spread of certain diseases and complicating efforts to combat others. Seasonality and weather are two of the major factors that control the rate at which viruses such as the flu infect humans. Although scientists are currently uncertain how climate breakdown will impact the spread of COVID-19, research predicts that rising global temperatures will alter the timing, distribution and severity of disease outbreaks.
For example, my research shows that animal species are moving toward the north and south poles and up mountains to escape the heat as the climate warms. Just as we don’t want people going into natural habitats and becoming exposed to animal viruses, we don’t want animal habitats moving into closer contact with humans and development projects. To prevent this, we must work to stop climate breakdown and give nature the space it needs to adapt naturally to the impacts that we can no longer prevent.
Q: So countries can help curb future disease outbreaks by protecting nature?
A: That’s right. Later in 2020, world leaders will convene at the UN Conference of Parties (COP) to the Convention on Biological Diversity to develop a roadmap that will guide nature conservation efforts for the next 10 years — the period in which we must slow global warming, protect our ecosystems and save species under threat. Under current conditions, more than 1 million species are at risk of extinction due to human activities, so ambitious but fair targets to conserve the planet’s wildlife by protecting nature are critical to preventing a mass extinction.
Q: What are some of these targets?
A: Our research shows that protecting 30 percent of tropical lands could help cut species extinction risk in half, while slowing climate breakdown. There is a whole suite of possible conservation tools that governments can implement to protect biodiversity while benefiting from the land, including protected areas, national parks, community conservancies and indigenous-managed conservation areas. We must take care of nature to take care of ourselves
However, establishing these areas is just the beginning, keeping them intact and supporting them is crucial to conserving nature and preventing human-wildlife contact. Another measure that countries must take to protect nature and stem zoonotic disease outbreaks is permanently ending the global wildlife trade. Due to its cultural implications in parts of the world, this will not be easy — but it is absolutely necessary.
Fundamentally, we need to reimagine our relationship with nature. For a long time, nature was robust and resilient, so humans often assumed we could do anything we wanted to it and it would bounce back. Due to population growth and overexploitation, we’ve reached a point where what we do to nature can permanently impact it.
Nature does a lot to support us and one of the things we must do in exchange for the benefits it provides is to make sure we protect it.
Lee Hannah is a senior climate change scientist at Conservation International. Kiley Price is a staff writer at Conservation International. Want to read more stories like this? Sign up for email updates here. Donate to Conservation International here.
Cover image: A forest in New Caledonia (© Shawn Heinrichs)