As we relentlessly encroach on nature and degrade ecosystems, we endanger the health of all humanity, a warning underlined by the Covid-19 pandemic in the most dramatic imaginable fashion.
Inger Andersen, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme, last week noted that 75 per cent of all emerging infectious diseases in humans are zoonotic — originating from animals, whether domesticated or from the wild.
A new study in the prestigious journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B found that the spillover risk was highest from threatened and endangered wild animals whose populations had declined largely due to hunting, the wildlife trade and loss of habitat.
“Spillover of viruses from animals is a direct result of our actions involving wildlife and their habitat,” said lead author Christine Kreuder Johnson of the University of California.
“The consequence is they’re sharing their viruses with us. These actions simultaneously threaten species survival and increase the risk of spillover. In an unfortunate convergence of many factors, this brings about the kind of mess we’re in now.”
The link between ecosystems and human health has been well documented repeatedly — in landmark reports from the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment 15 years ago to last year’s IPBES Global Assessment of Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services — both comprehensive, United Nations-endorsed reports involving thousands of experts worldwide.
In 2005, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment stressed an upturn in the emergence or re-emergence of infectious diseases due largely to rising human encroachment on natural environments, reductions in biodiversity (including natural predators of organisms that transmit disease), livestock and poultry production methods, and trading in wildlife.
The 2019 IPBES Global Assessment likewise warned of emerging infectious diseases in wildlife, domestic animals, plants or people, exacerbated by human activities such as land clearing and habitat fragmentation.
Both reports were well publicised, their messages repeated in countless forms, the scientific evidence there for all to see.
Sadly, it seems, only a calamitous event such as the current pandemic provides the jolt needed by many of us to take notice.