As this is written, we are all directly experiencing one of the impacts of habitat destruction from human development. That’s not the focus of coverage you are reading in most media right now. But it is the well-founded conclusion of a growing body of researchers and global health experts.
John Vidal, Environment Editor at Ensia, writes the full story on habitat destruction creating the perfect conditions for pathogens like COVID-19 to emerge. It is sobering. Yet it is also an affirmation of why our work, and that of others, is so important. Here’s an overview, but do read the whole piece.
Of new or emerging diseases infecting humans, three quarters are estimated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to originate in nonhuman animals, COVID-19 believed at this time to be one of them.
Vidal quotes David Quammen, author of Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Pandemic, who wrote in the New York Times.“We invade tropical forests and other wild landscapes, which harbor so many species of animals and plants — and within those creatures, so many unknown viruses. We cut the trees; we kill the animals or cage them and send them to markets. We disrupt ecosystems, and we shake viruses loose from their natural hosts. When that happens, they need a new host. Often, we are it.”
Habitats invaded and degraded by human development appear to amplify the transmission of disease. Vidal quotes Kate Jones, chair of ecology and biodiversity at UCL: “We are researching how species in degraded habitats are likely to carry more viruses which can infect humans. Simpler systems get an amplification effect. Destroy landscapes, and the species you are left with are the ones humans get the diseases from.”
Wildlife habitat is under stress everywhere resulting in greater contact between humans and other animals and increased transmission of disease. In the United States we see this in the dramatic growth of Lyme disease.
Richard Ostfeld, distinguished senior scientist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, notes: “The health risks in a natural environment can be made much worse when we interfere with it. Rodents and some bats thrive when we disrupt natural habitats. They are the most likely to promote transmissions [of pathogens]. The more we disturb the forests and habitats the more danger we are in.”
What to do? Vidal quotes Brian Bird, a research virologist at the University of California: “The risks are greater now. They were always present and have been there for generations. It is our interactions with that risk which must be changed. We are in an era now of chronic emergency. Diseases are more likely to travel further and faster than before, which means we must be faster in our responses. It needs investments, change in human behavior, and it means we must listen to people at community levels.”
One thing is clear, we need to do more to connect conservation with the work going on in human health, locally, regionally and globally. We’ll explore these connections further in future Lightning Updates.