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SAFE FORESTS, SAFE PEOPLE: ZOONOTIC DISEASES

The rapid spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus has brought into sharp focus the entry of pathogens originally found in wild animals into the humans

In the recent years, the diseases of such nature that have raised alarm are: Ebola, HIV, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, bird flu and swine flu

The origins

The contagion, thought to have originated in a wet market that kept live animals in Wuhan, China, points to many underlying factors:

  • the destruction of forests and trapping
  • farming of wild species
  • rising economic activity, such as road building and mining cutting through forests, bringing more people in close contact with animals.
  • global trade in wild species — in Wuhan, they reportedly ranged from wolf pups to rats, civets and foxes, among others — and their sale in markets along with domestic animals

All these activities have brought these animals closer to humans, and the viruses they harbour find ready hosts in domestic animals, moving to humans.

Similar to Nipah and Hendra transmission

The well-documented histories of the lethal Nipah and Hendra viruses, involving transfer from bats to pigs in the former, and bats to horses in the latter, underscore the value of maintaining viable ecosystems, and eliminating the need for wild bats to colonise human surroundings.

The role of Biodiversity 

Biodiversity in forests harmlessly retains dangerous viruses and other pathogens among a vast pool of wild animals, away from people.

What this phenomenon makes clear is that governments should stop viewing undisturbed landscapes as an impediment to economic growth.

  • As COVID-19 has proved, these short-term high growth trajectories can come to an abrupt halt with a pandemic.
  • Such a terrible outcome could be witnessed again, potentially caused by reckless exploitation of the environment.

Pay heed now

Unlike previous epidemics, the latest one has extracted a staggering toll, killing people, forcing a lockdown and causing economic devastation.

  • This should serve as a dire warning to the government that hasty permissions granted for new roads, dams, mines and power projects in already enfeebled forests can unleash more scourges.
  • It would do well to roll back its dilution of the environmental clearance system, strengthen it with a mandate to the States, and leave protected areas to scientific experts.
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October 2022
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