June 05, 2020

World Environment Day: Wildlife and People in the Struggle for Survival and Sustainability

As people throughout the world have been forced to stay home due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there are many lessons we’ve learned (and are still learning). One of them is that the destiny of people and nature go hand in hand, and we simply can’t ignore that fact. The celebration of the 2020 World Environment Day is a good moment to stop and reflect on some key aspects of the relationship between people and wildlife that have been highlighted by this global crisis.

Bat shaming

During the first weeks since news of the coronavirus emerged, several reports pointed to bats being the origin of this novel contagious disease. Led by misinformation and fear, many people throughout the world attacked bats to avoid the spread of COVID-19. However, as more research was conducted, scientists and conservation leaders warned that this link was not 100% proven and launched communication campaigns to remove the stigma on bats and highlight their important environmental benefits including pollination, seed dispersal, and pest and disease-vector control. Although COVID-19 has indeed been identified as a zoonotic disease - a human disease of animal origin - its exact animal source is yet not clear.

Nevertheless, zoonoses have been an increasing problem for many years. According to the UN Environment Programme, 75% of all emerging infectious diseases are transferred to people from wildlife. They include Ebola, avian influenza (or bird flu), H1N1 flu virus (or swine flu), Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), Rift Valley fever, sudden acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), West Nile virus, and the Zika virus. Evidence shows that the emergence and re-emergence of zoonotic diseases are closely interlinked with the health of ecosystems, and their spread increases with the intensification of human activities surrounding and encroaching into natural habitats, enabling pathogens in wildlife reservoirs to spill over to livestock and humans.

Reclaiming lost habitat?

When the lockdown and isolation began across different countries, we were impressed to see how wildlife quickly appeared in cities and other places where they would previously not dare to go, because they had been occupied by humans. Dolphins in Turkey, boars in Israel, and pumas in Chile are examples of animals touring largely empty city streets, fascinating -and sometimes scaring- urban dwellers.

Explanations given by experts vary. Some claim that these species are once again roaming what used to be part of their original habitat, while others attribute this behavior to dire conditions in their natural environment, such as the megadrought in Chile, which would drive them to leave their comfort zone in search for food and water.

Wildlife abandoned by tourists

While some wildlife species have seized the opportunity to explore new horizons, others are not so lucky. Many zoos and other wildlife attractions across the globe have been hardly hit by the drop of tourism as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. I’ve written before about the risks of feeding wildlife and other impacts of wildlife tourism, including buying souvenirs made from endangered species and observing whales and dolphins. However, the crisis in the tourism industry caused by the spread of this new coronavirus brings this issue into the spotlight once again.

From the monkeys at the Prang Sam Yod temple in Thailand to Neumünster Zoo in Germany, animals in captivity are starving as a result of lower revenues from tourism, which affects the capacity of the facilities to provide food for them, and, in some cases such as the temple in Thailand, less tourists to bring snacks to feed them. In Chile, zoos are working together with authorities and reaching out to the community for help through the advanced sale of tickets for when the facilities are able to open once again.

The drop in tourism has also affected protected areas in many countries, where it has resulted in less stress to local wildlife, but at the same time has reduced the number of potential witnesses or casual guardians against criminal acts. With parks closed and law enforcement personnel diverted to other duties related to COVID-19, poachers have taken advantage of reduced human presence to increase their activities.

What can we do?

This is a huge question. In fact, during this worldwide health, economic, and environmental crisis there are many things society as a whole needs to reflect on if we want to be successful in the common struggle of humans and wildlife for survival and sustainability.

How can we avoid the outbreak of new zoonotic diseases? How can we halt and mitigate habitat fragmentation to allow healthy wildlife populations to flourish? How can we reduce poaching to save species from extinction? What will be the role of wildlife tourism when travel resumes? What should be the role of zoos and wildlife attractions? Should they still exist, or should they be eliminated, following the lead of countries such as Costa Rica? 

Nature is making a clear statement! As countries start to plan ways to build back once the COVID-19 pandemic is under control, getting nature at the heart of all decision making  must be our top priority. We need to act now to make the world a better place for people and for nature!

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