Monday, 13 April 2020 10:54

Corona-Virus: How species conservation can protect us from disease


The Covid-19-pandemic is without any doubt a medical, economic and social crisis worldwide. At the same time it is a very serious ecological crisis, which exists since various decades.

If we destroy habitats and thus reduce the biodiversity, we endanger ourselves.  Not only indirectly and on long term by destroying rainforest and thus losing potential, medical remedies or by heating up the earth and making whole areas inhabitable, but also in a very concrete and direct way. The Covid-19-pathogen was not falling down from the sky. The corona-pandemic is the consequence of human activities, a consequence of the destruction of nature and our exploitative treatment of the creatures of this planet.

Covid-19: No coincidence but a question of time

For all scientists who study the phenomena of the transmission of viruses from wild animals to humans, the appearance of Covid-19 isn’t a surprise: Already in 2005 the virologist Zheng-Li Shi from the Institute of Virology in Wuhan warned, that corona-viruses could be transmitted from bats to humans and could cause a pandemic.

60 percent of all infectious diseases are zoonoses and 72 percent of them come from wild animals. Zoonoses are infectious diseases which spread on a natural way from invertebrates to human beings, and vice versa. Zoonoses can be caused by bacteria, viruses, fungi, parasites and prions.

Epidemics like Ebola caused the death of thousands, and the HI-virus even more than millions of human deaths. Many could be traced back to diseases whose pathogen was transmitted from wild animals to human beings. In case of Ebola the origin was probably, similar as Covid 19, a species of bat and HIV was originally transmitted by monkeys. Even the pathogens of SARS and MERS, which caused the death of 800 persons each since 2002, belong to the family of Corona-viruses and are zoonoses.

Not only wildlife markets are potential transmission places

At least 7.000 species of wild animals worldwide suffer from poaching and illegal commerce. Also Covid-19 had his origin most probably on the wild animal market in Wuhan. It is still not clear, whether pangolin animals were intermediate hosts of the new corona virus – most important is in any case the consequent implementation of the trade bans on these massively endangered mammals and their protection from poaching and illegal trade. Pangolins are eaten in China and are used in the traditional, Chinese medicine.

From the western point of view it seems easy to point with the finger on countries, which don’t stop poaching and illegal trade behavior. But also, we in Germany participate in the destruction of habitats, by consuming too much meat, for which rainforests have to disappear or by exploring fossil fuels and thus destroying complete regions. If we as humans destroy forests and other habitats, we also change the grown structures of the ecosystems profoundly. Millions of species in flora and fauna, but also parasites, fungi and bacteria live in the forests. They build a balanced structure among the species which whom they developed. Even if the pathogen could be dangerous for human beings, it might not necessarily cause symptoms of illness in animals. The strength of the system is the biodiversity. Intact ecosystems protect people.

"Like dust rising out of ruins"

Invading or even destroying these ecosystems, pathogens are losing their hosts and will look for a new one – frequently this is a human individual. We call this spillover, which can cause as consequence the infection of thousands of other people. The US-American author David Quammen described already in 2013 in his book “Spillover”, how such pathogens could transmit zoonoses to humans. “Where trees are felled and wild animals are killed, local germs are spreading from the ruins”.

What links the climate crisis with the Corona-crisis?

Almost half of our forest areas, which existed in former times on earth, were already destroyed by mankind. The habitat of wild animals is shrinking and therefore they are forced to look for new ones. Additionally the consequence of the heating of the earth distributes animals from their original habitats. “The problem is not the wild animals, but our close contact with animals, which makes it possible, that pathogens, could skip from animals to humans”, explains the WWF species protection expert, Arnulf Köhncke.

Deforestation in combination with an intense agriculture not only drive animals close to human beings, but contributes also to the heating of the planet: Ideal conditions for the most horrible forest fires ever known, which we experienced in 2019 in the Amazonas, in the Congo Basin, in Indonesia and in the beginning of 2020 in Australia.

Waiting for the next pandemic?

Outbreaks of human infectious diseases are increasing. In recent years, there have been Ebola, avian flu, Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome MERS, Rift Valley fever, severe acute respiratory syndrome SARS, West Nile virus and Zika virus, to name only a few. Every time animals were the original host of the new pathogens. But not the wild animals and there natural pathogens are the trigger of new human diseases, but the unnatural proximity between humans and wild animals.

If we go on like this, the next epidemic is just a question of time, this is also the opinion of Inger Andersen, director of the UN-environmental program. We should also bear in mind that the costs and consequences of a pandemic, such as the one we are now experiencing, far exceed the costs of preventing it. Intact ecosystems and healthy wild animals would protect us.

It’s in our hands to prevent pandemics

The good news is: It’s in our hands to minimize this danger. The WWF demands since many years to ban consequently illegal commerce and illegal wild animal markets and to close legal loopholes, to allow for efficient enforcement. Even if health and the prevention of suffering are now in the focus of our actions, we may not lose out of sight the protection of biodiversity, the fight against the climate crisis and the halt to poaching. Latest now it should be clear: The fight against the destruction of nature is not only necessary to avoid a global, ecological catastrophe, but also to prevent a medical catastrophe with all with coming social consequences for humans and the whole world.

Help the WWF-protection areas worldwide, which are in danger by the Corona-crisis. Guarantee with us the workplace of rangers, fight against poverty and prevent poaching to protect the biodiversity.