Save wildlife, save forests, and avoid pandemics

Covid-19 emerged from the wilderness. That alone is reason to protect the forests, control trade in wildlife—and avoid pandemics.

philippiine pangolin
A pangolin pup and its mother: The species has been suspected of spreading Covid-19 to humans. Image: Shukran888, CC BY-SA 2.0

If the world wants to avoid pandemics like Covid-19 in future, it has a lot to learn. This coronavirus outbreak is likely to cost the world somewhere between $8 trillion and $15 trillion.

It might have been 500 times cheaper, say US scientists, simply to have done what conservationists have sought for years: control trade in wildlife and stop destroying tropical forests.

The SARS-CoV-2 virus – also known as Covid-19 – is a new human infection that has been traced back to bats apparently traded as food in China. It has so far infected 15 million people around the planet and caused nearly 700,000 deaths.

But it is just one of a series of viruses that have emerged from creatures in the wilderness, to cause a series of local or global epidemics: among them HIV, Ebola, MERS, SARS and H1N1.

Researchers calculate that, for the last century, at least two new viruses each year have spilled from their natural hosts into the human population.

Nothing seems more prudent than to give ourselves time to deal with this pandemic before the next one comes.

Les Kaufman, ecologist, Boston University

And this has happened, they argue in the journal Science, most often directly after people have handled live primates, bats and other mammals, or butchered them for meat, or indirectly after such viruses have infected farm animals such as chickens or pigs.

These infections are now so familiar they have acquired their own medical classification: they are zoonotic viruses.

And human exploitation of the world’s last remaining wildernesses – the tropical forests – and pursuit of exotic creatures for trophies, medicines or food can be linked to the emergence of most of them.

“All this traces back to our indifference about what has been happening at the edge of the tropical forests,” said Les Kaufman, an ecologist at Boston University.

He and 17 other experts argue that at a cost of somewhere between $22 billion and $30 billion a year, the transmission of unknown and unexpected diseases could be significantly reduced: chiefly by controlling logging and conversion of rainforest into ranch land, and limiting the trade in wild meat and exotic animals.

Clear argument

The sums are large. But the cost of the Covid-19 pandemic so far is likely to prove at least 500 times more costly.

Professor Kaufman and his colleagues did the calculations. They added up the annual costs of monitoring the world’s wildlife trade; of active programmes to prevent what they call “spillovers” from wild creatures; of efforts to detect and control outbreaks; the cost of reducing infection to human populations and farmed livestock; the cost of reducing deforestation each year by half, and the cost of ending the trade in wild meat in China. Their highest estimate was $31.2 billion a year, their lowest $22 billion.

They offset this with the benefits simply in the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions linked to forest destruction, and then matched the total against the global loss of gross domestic product, the cost of the estimated 590,000 dead from the virus at the end of July, and so on, to arrive at a minimum cost of $8.1 trillion, and a maximum of $15.8tn.

The researchers see this balance of costs as a clear argument for international and concerted action from governments around the world to reduce an enduring hazard.

“The pandemic gives an incentive to do something addressing concerns that are immediate and threatening to individuals, and that’s what moves people,” Professor Kaufman said. “Nothing seems more prudent than to give ourselves time to deal with this pandemic before the next one comes.” 

This story was published with permission from Climate News Network.

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