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How nature conservation can prevent future pandemics

While the exact cause The COVID-19 outbreak is still controversial. The broad consensus is that its origin is a coronavirus found in wildlife (known as a zoonotic disease). There is also strong evidence that the causative coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 was able to jump from wild animals to humans through human actions. The two winners of the Conservation Leadership Program (CLP), Iroro Tanshi and Dr. Mariane Kaizer, lead both nature conservation projects affected by a zoonosis. The following explains how human actions contributed to the outbreak of the disease and why conservation efforts will play an important role in preventing future pandemics.

COVID-19: A Bat Conservator’s Perspective

CLP award winner and bat specialist Iroro Tanshi dedicated her doctoral thesis and CLP project 2020 to saving the only known population of Hipposideros curtus with endangered short-tailed bats in Nigeria. Thanks to their research efforts, the IUCN Red List recently upgraded species from Endangered to Endangered.

But Iroro’s vital work has been jeopardized since an ancestral version of SARS-CoV-2 was found in bats. Iroro and other bat protectors are concerned that misinterpretation of these results is leading people to wrongly believe that bats are causing the spread of COVID-19. Iroro notes substantial anecdotal evidence pointing to the escalation of bat culling around the world, presumably based on the false belief that it will contain the spread of the disease.

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Iroro and her colleagues are fighting to prevent bats from being culled by emphasizing that it is people who transmit COVID-19 to other people, not bats. It’s also important to note that bats and other animals are known to harbor SAR-like coronaviruses, but the exact mechanism that caused the virus to spill over from wildlife to humans (virus spillover) is unknown.

According to Iroro, it is clear that humans played a key role in triggering the outbreak. “Usually the likelihood of a spillover event is very, very small. However, through our actions we have provided an already adaptable coronavirus with numerous options and the perfect conditions to thrive, “she said.

Iroro explains that the destruction of bats’ natural habitats and the trade in wildlife likely led to novel species interactions and increased human-animal contact, which allowed the virus to spread to humans. However, as the specific origin of the virus is still being investigated, it is unclear whether bats were directly or indirectly involved (via an intermediate host) or whether there are other wild animal origins that we do not yet know about.

Regardless of the origins of SARS-CoV-2, human actions are ultimately responsible for its spread and community transmission. It is therefore our responsibility to prevent such zoonotic outbreaks from occurring again.

Yellow fever: a lesson from the past

Dr.  Mariane Kaizer working in the fields in Caparaó National Park, Brazil © Francisco Homem

In 2018, the Brazilian primate expert Dr. Mariane Kaizer started a CLP-funded project to increase public support for the conservation of endemic primate species in Brazil, including the critically endangered northern Muriqui monkey Brachyteles hypoxanthus.

At the time, Brazil was experiencing a yellow fever epidemic (YF), an infectious disease caused by a mosquito-borne virus (for which non-human primates are the main reservoir of infection). The outbreak spread to both human and non-human primate populations throughout the forest region in the south-east Atlantic.

Mariane and her team set out to find out how YF is affecting the monkeys in the region. In Caparaó National Park, they found dozens of Southern Brown Howler monkeys that Alouatta clamitans had died of YF. Another team working just 80 kilometers north in the Mata do Sossego private reserve found that the disease had killed 26% of the population in northern Muriqui, a blow to the already declining population.

But the monkeys here aren’t only endangered by YF. In addition to illegal hunting, wildlife trafficking, and habitat destruction due to deforestation, they are also at risk of being persecuted and killed by locals who mistakenly fear they are causing the spread of diseases like YF.

Such measures are likely to increase the risk of YF outbreaks in people. Deforestation is destroying the natural barriers that would otherwise keep infected mosquitoes at bay. And when people enter forests to illegally hunt or catch monkeys, they are more likely to be bitten by infected mosquitoes and brought back to other people, for example in vehicles.

Now with an increased risk of YF and other zoonotic outbreaks, Brazilian health officials have had to rely on non-human primates as the “natural guardians” of wildlife disease surveillance programs. In the case of YF, the virus affects monkeys before it affects humans and provides an important early indicator of a possible YF outbreak in human populations.

Mariane believes that learning from such well-documented cases and conservation projects could help us prevent future zoonotic disease outbreaks. “After the COVID-19 outbreak, it is now more important than ever to use what we have learned from previous experiences (as in the case of the yellow fever epidemic in Brazil) to improve the monitoring and control of harmful zoonoses,” he says to Mariane.

Strengthening the barriers to disease

Mariane and Iroro are among the leading nature conservation officers who advocate change to prevent future outbreaks of zoonoses and protect nature. For example, two public petitions among CLP partners call on governments and the private sector worldwide – one to make life on a healthy planet a human right and one to provide $ 500 billion to local conservation groups around the world.

It also called for a ban on the commercial trade in wild animals, taking into account the cultural and socio-economic impact on the traditions and nutritional needs of the local population.

Around the world it is clear that we must work together to prevent ecological degradation and restore natural habitats, ban unnecessary hunting and commercial trade in wildlife, and put in place comprehensive wildlife disease surveillance programs. These changes could prevent future zoonoses and their potentially devastating effects on humans and wildlife.

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