OPINION

Coronavirus wake up call to review human health and wildlife Conservation

A ban on the consumption of wildlife products and a prohibition of trade in wild animal species was announced on February 24.

In Summary

• Some researchers in China, the epicentre of the outbreak, have suggested pangolins are the probable intermediate host species for the coronavirus.

• While there has not been conclusive evidence to confirm the coronavirus is a result of human contact with pangolins, mankind would be well-advised to reconsider some of its reckless and avaricious use of wild animals.

Strategy against corona
Strategy against corona
Image: OZONE

As the world reels from the fast-spreading coronavirus virus, the international community needs to pay closer attention to what role trade in wildlife, much of it illegal, could have played in its transmission.

Some researchers in China, the epicentre of the outbreak, have suggested pangolins are the probable intermediate host species for the coronavirus. Many Chinese view pangolins as an important source of medicine and food. The meat is consumed as a luxury food, while the scales are used in traditional Chinese medicine. As a result, tens of thousands of pangolins are killed each year and have been declared the world’s most trafficked non-human animals. They are well on their way to extinction.

While there has not been conclusive evidence to confirm the coronavirus is a result of human contact with pangolins, mankind would be well-advised to reconsider some of its reckless and avaricious use of wild animals.

Fortunately, the speed at which Covid-19 has spread seems to have jolted the Chinese authorities into action. A ban on the consumption of wildlife products and a prohibition of trade in wild animal species was announced on February 24.

The move followed the shutting down of live animal markets, where the coronavirus, SARS and avian flu are thought to have jumped from animals to humans. The big question here, however, remains, how the Chinese will change their culture and long-established habit of consuming wildlife, since a ban is not necessarily equal to change in behaviour.

China is, of course, not the only place where the consumption of wildlife poses a threat to human health. According to a December 2019 study, people who eat wildebeests, warthogs and other wild African animals may be at risk of contracting potentially life-threatening diseases.

A team of researchers from Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences, Penn State University in the United States analysed samples of bushmeat in the Western Serengeti area in Tanzania and identified several groups of bacteria, many of which contain the species that cause diseases such as anthrax, brucellosis and Q fever.

The voices of conservationists crying in the wilderness have, perhaps, largely been ignored because they extoll the virtues of preserving wildlife for aesthetic reasons in a world where Earth’s natural endowments, animals included, are seen as resources to be exploited for the material gratification of human beings.

Now that Covid-19 epidemic has once again thrown light on the health risks of wildlife consumption, we who advocate for the conservation of biodiversity hope that people will stand up and take notice. Many of the species trafficked for human consumption are classified as either threatened or endangered. They are certainly better off left undisturbed to thrive in their habitats where they present little risk to human health.

A number of studies have linked reduced diversity among mammal species and an overall decrease in biodiversity to a rise in animal-borne diseases to humans.

In 2014, researchers from the Smithsonian Institute in the United States reported that they had observed a connection between declining populations of large wildlife and increases in zoonotic diseases (illnesses that can be passed on from animal to humans) across the globe.

In their findings, published in the April 2014 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers learned that in East Africa, a decrease in the number of large wildlife was associated with a substantial increase in rodent populations. Rodents can harbour bacteria that cause disease in humans.

Large mammals, such as antelopes, elephants, giraffes, and zebras are known to exert a natural and profound influence on their ecosystems through their dietary and other habits. When declining numbers of large animals live in an environment, that environment changes in many ways.

In Kenya, the researchers spent three years evaluating rodent populations inside and outside a 24-acre savannah that had been fenced off from large wildlife for several years.

The scientists monitored Bartonella infections in rodents and their fleas. Bartonellosis is an infectious zoonotic disease that in humans can cause memory loss, joint swelling, liver damage, and other symptoms.

The research team found that rodent and rodent flea populations doubled inside the 24-acre fenced area that had not been inhabited by large wildlife. The increase in rodents was directly attributable to the lack of competition by large animals for food. The scientists also found that just as the rodent and flea numbers doubled so did the numbers infected with Bartonella.

In their press release following their study, the scientists pointed out that “Africa's large wildlife faces many threats - elephants, rhinos and other large mammals continue to decline in the face of growing human populations, expanding agriculture and the impacts of poaching and wildlife trade. While we know that conservation is good for wildlife and for economies reliant on tourism, our study shows a less-intuitive dimension of conservation that could greatly benefit the people living alongside wildlife.”

Isn’t time we looked more closely into the human health dimension of wildlife and environmental conservation? And that we take more serious steps to shut down the illegal trade in wildlife?

Nancy Ogonje is executive director, East African Wild Life Society