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In warming world, viral spillovers are expected to increase: 3 stories you may have missed

© Sjoerd Van Der Wal

Editor's note: News about conservation and the environment is made every day, but some of it can fly under the radar. In a recurring feature, Conservation News shares three stories from the past week that you should know about.

1. Climate change will accelerate viral spillovers, study finds

Warming temperatures could bring different species of animals — and their diseases — into closer proximity. 

The story: According to a new study, we can add another chilling entry to the list of looming climate impacts: Thousands of viruses are expected to jump from one species of mammal to another as temperatures continue to warm over the next 50 years. And that could increase the risk of pandemics like COVID-19, experts say. 

“As temperatures increase, many species are expected to spread away from the blazing Equator to find more comfortable habitats,” writes Carl Zimmer for The New York Times. “Others may move up the sides of hills and mountains to find cooler altitudes. When different species come into contact for the first time, the viruses may be able to infect new hosts.” 

Using computer models, the study’s authors mapped out how more than 3,000 mammals’ habitats may shift over time under different climate scenarios. If the models are accurate, there will be more than 4,000 instances in which viruses will jump from one species to another — potentially infecting humans.  

The big picture: Though every new infectious disease is unique, research shows many share a key feature: They are driven by the destruction of nature. Not only is deforestation pushing humans closer to wildlife, it also fuels climate change — which increase the chances of disease outbreaks like COVID-19. 

“We must fix our broken relationship with nature or we can likely expect another pandemic within a decade,” Dr. Neil Vora, a physician and Conservation International’s pandemic prevention fellow, told Conservation News. “Now is the time to create policies and invest in strategies for prevention — protecting nature will help us save millions of lives and trillions of dollars in the future.” 

Read more here


FURTHER READING: 

A very special birth announcement from the heart of the rainforest in Africa. 

The story: In the lush forests of the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, two baby mountain gorillas were recently born, reports Robyn White for Newsweek. These two apes — one male and one female — are part of the Bageni mountain gorilla family living in Virunga National Park. With only 1,000 mountain gorillas left in this region, the announcement was met with tentative hope by park officials. 

"Female mountain gorillas tend to give birth not more than once every four years and sometimes longer and they carry their infants on their back for approximately two years after birth," a Virunga National Park spokesperson told Newsweek. "So every new birth really matters, and that is why the steady recovery in the mountain gorilla population over recent years is such an important achievement and testament to the work and commitment of the Virunga National Park Rangers."

The big picture: The COVID-19 pandemic poses a unique threat to gorillas, which are susceptible to many of the same diseases that affect humans. 

To help minimize the risk of transmitting diseases from humans to gorillas, the International Gorilla Conservation Program (IGCP) — a partnership led by the Conservation International, the World Wildlife Fund, and Flora and Fauna International — has helped develop tourism protocols that minimize contact between tourists and these great apes. Additionally, the partnership has developed a “Gorilla Friendly Pledge” for guests to sign as a commitment to adhere to the protocols of safe gorilla tourism, which Matthew Lewis, a wildlife expert at Conservation International, hopes will improve tourism practices even beyond the pandemic. 

“IGCP’s efforts have helped mountain gorilla populations recover in recent years, surpassing 1,000 individuals for the first time in half a century, and efforts like this new protocol will help continue that trend,” Lewis said. “If done sustainably, gorilla tourism helps protect this great ape and support local economies. It’s a win-win.” 

Read more here

This small amphibian signals a bigger trend for Australian wildlife. 

The story: The Gondwana rainforest of Australia is home to some of the rarest wildlife in the world — from egg-laying mammals and worms that glow to half of the country’s plant species

Now, another new species has been uncovered in this landscape — a small, orange mountain frog known as Philoria knowlesi, The Guardian reports. But with this discovery came an unsettling finding: This amphibian is facing extinction due to the severe bushfires that ravaged this ecosystem in 2019 and 2020

The big picture: “Most [of these frogs] are confined to the very headwaters of mountain streams and a key threat to their survival is climate change,” David Newell, a frog researcher, told The North West Star. “As these habitats warm, these frogs literally will have nowhere else to go.” 

More than 3 billion animals — including the Philoria knowlesi frog — were impacted by the 2019-2020 Australian bushfires, which were exacerbated by climate change, scientists found. The Australian government instituted the national bushfire recovery fund to help restore the country’s iconic ecosystems and rehabilitate wildlife, with US$ 3.5 million going toward the protection of the Gondwana rainforests. 

Read more here

Cover image: A ring-tailed lemur, Madagascar (© Sjoerd van der Wal)

Kiley Price is the staff writer and news editor at Conservation International. Want to read more stories like this? Sign up for email updates here. Donate to Conservation International here.


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