Coronavirus: Humanity’s ‘intrusion’ into nature led to pandemic, scientist says

‘It’s pretty obvious, it was just a matter of time before something like this was going to happen,’ says conservation biologist Thomas Lovejoy

Kate Ng
Saturday 25 April 2020 19:25 BST
The WHO and governments globally are facing pleas to halt the sale of animals in unhygienic conditions and wildlife trade

A leading US scientist, who was dubbed the “godfather of biodiversity”, has said the illegal wildlife trade and humanity’s “persistent and excessive intrusion” into nature is what led to the coronavirus pandemic.

Thomas Lovejoy, a conservation biologist who coined the term “biological diversity” in 1980, said scientists are discovering between two to four new viruses every year that emerge as a result of human interference in the natural world. He said any one of those had the potential to turn into a pandemic.

He told The Guardian that the pandemic was “the consequence of our persistent and excessive intrusion in nature and the vast illegal wildlife trade”. “Wildlife markets, the wet markets, of south Asia and bush meat markets of Africa” were particularly key players.

“It’s pretty obvious, it was just a matter of time before something like this was going to happen,” added Mr Lovejoy.

His comments marked the release of a report by the Centre for American Progress, which calls for the US to step up efforts to end wildlife trafficking and halt the destruction of natural areas in order to “save ourselves”.

The report, published on 20 April, reiterated Mr Lovejoy’s remarks and pointed out that nearly two-thirds of all emerging diseases are spread to humans from animals, with 71 per cent of the diseases originating from wildlife. These include HIV-Aids, Ebola and Sars.

“It is not a coincidence that the rise in wildlife-borne diseases has occurred alongside increasing human encroachment on nature and a rapidly changing climate,” wrote Nicole Gentile, deputy director for Public Lands at American Progress, and researcher Sahir Doshi, in the report.

“Habitat loss and overexploitation of wildlife – compounded by climate change – are driving factors in the disease boom.”

In order to lower the risk of disease transmission between species, Mr Lovejoy said separating wild animals from farmed animals in markets where they are sold simultaneously would reduce the probability of viruses leaping.

“The name of the game is reducing certain amounts of activity so the probability of that kind of leap becomes small enough that it’s inconsequential,” he told The Guardian.

“The big difficulty is that if you just shut them down – which in many ways would be the ideal thing – they will be topped up with black markets, and that’s even harder to deal with because it’s clandestine.”

He added that the pandemic was not an act of “revenge” by nature, but rather, “we did it to ourselves”. “The solution is to have a much more respectful approach to nature, which includes dealing with climate change and all the rest.”

The Independent’s new campaign to Stop The Wildlife Trade was launched as the World Health Organisation (WHO) came under pressure to impose permanent bans on illegal wildlife trades and wet markets in China, as the coronavirus is believed to have originated in a wet market in Wuhan.

But some experts say although urgent action on wildlife trade is a necessity, any actions must also take into account and result in “socially just outcomes” for people whose livelihoods depend on wild resources.

Over 300 signatories support an open letter to the WHO and United Nations Environment Programme which calls for the development of holistic and equitable solutions to reduce the risk of pandemics through animals.

The letter reads: “Covid-19 is inflicting unprecedented social and economic costs on countries and communities, with the poor and vulnerable hardest hit. The virus’s suspected links with a Chinese ‘wet market’ has led to calls to ban wet markets and restrict or end the trade and consumption – for medicines or food – of wildlife.

“However, indiscriminate bans and restrictions risk being inequitable and ineffective. Wet markets, wildlife trade and consumption, and disease risks are all complex subjects. Wet markets (not all of which sell wild meat) provide invaluable food security; billions of people worldwide trade or consume wild meat and rely on wildlife use for livelihoods, while diseases are transmitted from livestock as well as wildlife.

“There is an urgent need to tackle wildlife trade that is illegal, unsustainable or carries major risk to human health, biodiversity or animal welfare,” it adds. “Certain high-risk activities may rightfully necessitate targeted and/or time-bound bans or severe restrictions (and rigorous enforcement), but it is vital that any such action is specific, appropriate, and equitable.”

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