To Prevent Future Pandemics, We Must Protect Wildlife and Wild Places
The emergence of the novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, has had a devastating impact on the people of Connecticut. The deadly zoonotic disease has already claimed thousands of lives in the state, forced businesses to shut their doors, and has left many of us feeling overwhelmed and anxious as we confront the harsh new realities of living through a global pandemic.
Sadly, this crisis was all too predictable. Emerging zoonotic diseases – diseases carried by animals that jump to people – have quadrupled in the last 50 years and are responsible for over two billion cases of human illness and over two million human deaths each year. Scientists estimate that 60% of known infectious diseases in people can be transmitted from animals, and 75% of emerging infectious diseases originate in wildlife. In just the past 40 years, the worst pandemics were all zoonotic in origin, including HIV, SARS, avian flu, swine flu, Ebola, and Zika. COVID-19 is just the latest to emerge.
Global pandemics will likely continue and even escalate if we fail to address the root causes of these diseases—the burgeoning wildlife trade and the destruction of habitat in the United States and around the world.
The ever-growing wildlife trade—both legal and illegal—is bringing people and animals into close and prolonged contact, creating myriad opportunities for novel diseases, for which we have no immunity, to spill over to humans. Over 5,000 species are already a part of the wildlife trade, with several thousand more species predicted to enter the market in years to come. The illegal trade of endangered wildlife alone is a $20 billion market that is fourth in size after the illegal drug trade, human smuggling, and the trade of illegal weapons. Global legal wildlife trade is estimated to be valued at $300 billion a year, a significant portion of which is unregulated. Wildlife trade has now become the second biggest threat to biodiversity, following habitat loss.
The U.S. is one of the nations with the highest demand for wildlife – importing over 225 million live animals and 883 million other wildlife specimens every year. Live animals are traded domestically and internationally as pets, for use in laboratories, as food, and for zoos. Dead animals and their parts are traded for food, traditional medicines, trinkets, trophies, clothing, and other uses. Demand for wildlife and wildlife products appears to be growing; the number of wildlife shipments into the country has roughly doubled in the last 20 years. Among the countries that export legal and illegal wildlife to the United States, many include “hotspots” of known and emerging infectious and zoonotic diseases. Given that the U.S. has, with few exceptions, no laws specifically requiring wildlife entering the country to be tested for diseases, we are extremely vulnerable to future outbreaks.
Meanwhile, habitat destruction around the world is accelerating, resulting in staggering declines in the abundance and diversity of species. Scientists estimate that people have already converted 70% of the world’s ice-free land to agriculture, livestock, and urban development. Destruction of forests, urban expansion, and building road networks that fragment habitat are causing humans to come into more direct contact with a wider range of wildlife, a critical factor underlying disease spillover from animals to humans. As people increasingly enter and destroy pristine places where animals live, we increase the risk of encountering novel zoonotic diseases from animals forced to move out of their natural habitats or poached for the wildlife trade. In fact, wildlife that is threatened because of habitat loss is twice as likely as other threatened species to be found carrying zoonotic diseases.
The COVID-19 pandemic illustrates that we must fundamentally change our relationship with wildlife and nature if we want to avoid future catastrophes. The only way to truly curtail the spread of future zoonotic diseases is to curb wildlife exploitation and habitat loss, and vigorously protect the remaining wild places that are left. Our future may very well depend on it.
Stephanie Kurose is a Sierra Club member and an Endangered Species Policy Specialist at the Center for Biological Diversity.