Science

COVID-19 Should Make Us Rethink Our Destructive Relationship With the Natural World

We need to chart another way forward.

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Of all the things I learned during my years in the rainforest of Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania conducting my research into the behavior of chimpanzees, one of the most important is how all life is interconnected. Every species has a role to play in the complex web of life. As an example, deforestation in the Congo Basin, the Amazon, and the tropical forests of Asia may seem unimportant to people in the United States or Europe, yet the loss of these forests (as well as other ecosystems) is altering global weather patterns and affecting people in all parts of the world. We humans are part of the natural world—we relate to each other and with all the other animals who inhabit the planet with us. Similarly, in many parts of the world, people may not know—or care—about the little animal called a pangolin (or scaly anteater). But that changes once they know the role that pangolins probably played in the emergence of the current pandemic of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19.

Close proximity to wild animals, especially in “wet markets” that sell live animals, can give rise to diseases caused by viruses that cross the species barrier and jump into us. The SARS outbreak originated in a meat market in China from a civet (a small mammal), MERS from a camel in the Middle East. Evidence suggests that COVID-19 may have originated in bats, transferred to pangolins, and then infected humans at a live animal market in China. Of the many new diseases that have emerged since 1960, scientists estimate that more than half were caused by transmission from other species to humans. You’d think by now we would have learned how easily it could happen again.

The global demand for wildlife, the destruction of the natural world, and the spread of diseases are already having a catastrophic effect on the world as we know it. We are in the midst of the Sixth Great Extinction, the balance of nature has been disturbed, and the suffering of humans and other animals has increased. It’s hard to really grasp the extent of the damage. Just as it is true that we tend to think about the suffering of humans as collections of people—refugees, child laborers, the homeless—rather than the suffering of the individuals comprising those groups, so too do people seldom think about the suffering of individuals when we talk of threatened wildlife species. But each individual animal of a species, like each human, is important.

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We are currently in a somewhat unprecedented moment of realizing just how vulnerable each one of us is to problems that may start far away from us, in other species, in other parts of the world. COVID-19 is many things, but it is also a reason to reckon with the enormous impact that something damaging the natural world can have on us as individuals.

We are now feeling the true cost of wildlife trafficking and the destruction of the natural world that brings us into closer contact with wildlife. My own work has shown me how thousands of great apes are stolen from the wild every year. They are hunted for bush meat and for their body parts, and infants are captured alive to be sold overseas illegally as pets, or for zoos, entertainment, and tourist attractions. This market is distressing for any lover of these wonderful creatures, but it also threatens their very existence. Many other species are in danger too, including elephants, rhinos, the big cats, giraffes, reptiles, and more. Pangolins are the most trafficked animals on Earth. As we mourn the affect this trade has on the individuals that suffer it, we must also see that this global demand and tragedy created the circumstances that have likely resulted in the current pandemic. The risk it poses to humans is certainly another reason to stand up against this behavior.

Thankfully, a strict ban of wildlife trafficking was implemented in China soon after the emergence of COVID-19, including forbidding the importation, selling, and eating of wild animals. And other countries, like Vietnam, are following suit. Currently these measures do not ban trade for fur, medicine, or research, but I am hopeful that these loopholes will be closed. This is a global trade, and every country and individual must do its part to create more comprehensive legislation to protect wildlife, end illegal trafficking, ban trafficking across national borders, and ban sales (especially online). And we must fight corruption that allows these activities to continue even when they are banned or illegal. In addition, chimpanzees and other great apes, with whom we share so much of our biology, are also susceptible to transmission of disease from humans and have suffered terribly from respiratory illnesses, including coronaviruses, passed on from humans. We must be much more vigilant about not handling or being in close proximity to wildlife to protect ourselves and them.

Still, even as we fight for a world without the trafficking and eating of wildlife, we must also remember that there are many people who depend on this trade for income. These efforts will be in vain if we don’t support alternative forms of work. Our global chapters of the Jane Goodall Institute use Tacare, our method of community-based conservation that focuses on listening to the needs of people. We support the development of environmentally sustainable livelihoods, such as agroforestry, beekeeping, and local handicrafts, for instance. We give people the tools to create village land use management plans that include protection of community forests and creation of wildlife corridors. And we support their ability to monitor the health of their environment with cutting-edge technology. Through this process, they recognize that protection of the environment safeguards their own futures, the future of their children, and the future of wildlife. This model for local empowerment is already operating in six countries where JGI works, and I hope it can be used in many more places around the world.

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Solutions to the threats discussed above are within our grasp. The laws we create now to protect wildlife will also protect human communities. Restoring and protecting forests through legislation and empowering local communities will save species and prevent disease transmission. Creating alternative sustainable livelihoods will create more resilient, successful human communities. It is desperately important, in the window of time remaining, that we should all do our bit to heal the harm we have inflicted on the natural world—of which we are a part. Let us stop stealing the future from our children and from the other species with whom we share our home.


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