Udayavni Special

Are deforestation, wildlife trade reasons behind zoonotic disease like COVID-19?

Team Udayavani, Jun 17, 2020, 7:02 PM IST

As the world grapples with coronavirus pandemic, a new report said wildlife trade and deforestation have led to more human-animal interaction resulting in the emergence of new zoonotic disease outbreaks.

The World Wide Fund (WWF) for Nature, in its report, called for urgent global action to address the key drivers which will cause future zoonotic disease outbreaks.

In recent decades, people have increasingly encroached upon the natural world, resulting in escalating levels of contact between humans, livestock and wildlife. As a result, the frequency and number of new zoonotic diseases, originating in animals and transmitted to people, has risen drastically over the last century.

Every year, around three to four new zoonotic diseases are emerging. These new diseases pose a grave threat to human health, causing deadly pandemics including HIV/AIDS, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), and most recently COVID-19, said the report titled ‘COVID-19: Urgent Call To Protect People And Nature’.

It said environmental factors driving the emergence of zoonotic diseases include trade and consumption of high-risk wildlife, land-use change leading to deforestation and conversion, expansion of agriculture and unsustainable intensification and animal production.

Marco Lambertini, Director General of WWF International said, “We must urgently recognise the links between the destruction of nature and human health, or we will soon see the next pandemic.”

He suggested curbing the high-risk trade and consumption of wildlife, halt deforestation and land conversion as well as manage food production sustainably .  All these actions will help prevent the spill-over of pathogens to humans, and also address other global risks to our society like biodiversity loss and climate change, he said.

There is no debate, and the science is clear; we must work with nature, not against it. Unsustainable exploitation of nature has become an enormous risk to us all, Lambertini said in a statement shared by WWF.

Questions remain about the exact origins of COVID-19, but all available evidence suggests that it is a zoonotic disease (a disease transmitted from animals to humans), the WWF said.

The report, however, said addressing high-risk wildlife trade and consumption in isolation will not be enough to prevent the next pandemic.

Our unsustainable global food system is driving large-scale conversion of natural spaces for agriculture, fragmenting natural ecosystems and increasing interactions between wildlife, livestock and humans.

Since 1990, 178 million hectares of forest have been cleared, which is equivalent to the size of Libya, the 18th largest country in the world, and around 10 million hectares of forest are still being lost each year through conversion to agriculture and other land uses, the report said.

Ravi Singh, Secretary General and CEO, WWF India said it is hard to think right now beyond the tragic impacts of the ongoing COVID-19 health crisis.

But it is also an opportune moment for us to act if we are to deliver a recovery that benefits people and nature. The challenge and opportunity before us today is to begin to think of development through the lens of environmental health.

It is imperative to look at the link between the health of nature and humanity and adopt more sustainable methods of production and consumption. A productive, diverse and sustainable natural world has been the basic asset for the success of our civilisation, and will continue to be so in future, Singh said.

The COVID-19 crisis demonstrates that systemic changes must be made to address the environmental drivers of pandemics, the report said.

It said the WWF is advocating a ‘One Health’ approach linking the health of people, animals and our shared environment and wants this to be included in decision making on wildlife and land use change.

It also suggested that this should be incorporated within all business and financing decisions, particularly related to global health.

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