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Conservation and COVID-19—what’s the connection?

May 5, 2020

Right now, all of us–individuals and our governments—are focused on immediate, life-and-death concerns. We need to act fast to stop the spread of a very contagious and dangerous virus, take care of the sick (and those who care for them), and help families struggling because of economic upheaval.

At a time like this, protecting the natural world may seem almost like a luxury, or at least like something that can wait until we solve the immediate crisis. But science tells us that the two issues—human health and healthy ecosystems—are intimately connected.

The coronavirus at the heart of the current pandemic most likely came from a wild animal. (We don’t yet know which one.) So did the deadly Ebola virus. But how do diseases jump from wild animals to humans?

Most often, outbreaks start somewhere that logging, mining, or agriculture has disrupted a wild ecosystem, forcing people and wildlife closer together. And as human-wildlife interactions increase, so does the danger of disease.

As David Quammen, author of the book Spillover, put it: “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.”

This means that society’s choices about the environment directly affect the likelihood of more deadly pandemics. If we keep emitting greenhouse gases at our current clip, the atmosphere will keep heating up, and wildfires will destroy more forest. If we let logging companies build roads that carve up forests, wildlife will crowd into the small remaining patches, close to people. If we let mining companies tear up forests and leave poisoned landscapes behind, people who can no longer farm or fish will be forced to hunt wild animals to eat or sell. Intensive livestock operations help create antibiotic-resistant bugs and discharge pathogen-laced waste. All of these things increase the risk of more deadly pandemics.

These connections are sadly obvious to conservationists and indigenous peoples all over the world. They are backed up by science, too. For example, a Stanford study published in April concluded that in Uganda, deforestation and fragmentation directly allowed infections to be transmitted from animals to people.

Even while we have our hands full trying to ease the suffering caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, it might be a good time to think about how we got here. Because if we take better care of the world’s ecosystems, we could reduce the odds of enduring another deadly outbreak.