Wildlife and human health

Artwork of COVID-19 virus from electron microscope imaging. © Shutterstock/Midnight Movement
Artwork of COVID-19 virus from electron microscope imaging. © Shutterstock/Midnight Movement

Wildlife contributes to food security and livelihoods of many local communities in the world. However, it is important to eat meat in a way that is safe for human health, as well as sustainable for animal populations. COVID-19, like Ebola, is caused by a virus which reached humans from other animals. COVID-19 probably originated in bats and may have infected other wild mammals before humans. Viruses and bacteria have come to humans from other species throughout our evolution. During evolution, this sometimes gave benefits. Thus, parts of our cells were originally independent bacteria. However, the adaptation process can be slow and dangerous.

The risk of death from COVID-19 is highest for humans more than 60-70 years old. Trying to save lives has stressed the medical services in countries with advanced economies and is starting to do so in emerging economies. There will be consequences for conservation. One effect will be widespread damage to livelihoods, with people compensating by using more resources, not always sustainably. However, there may also be beneficial effects for Climate Change, through people learning to work more from home and using less fossil fuel for distant travel.


Enduring solutions

Primates are good to watch and dangerous to eat. © Shutterstock/Julian Popov
Primates are good to watch and dangerous to eat. © Shutterstock/Julian Popov

There are steps to take both for the future and immediately. We need to think very carefully, to avoid doing harm to the environment and to ourselves. For example, some people say that COVID-19 is a reason for humans not to eat other animals, or even associate with them. However, humans have adapted to viruses and bacteria from wild and domestic animals for millennia. Our bodies contain many micro-organisms, mostly useful to us. We associate with animals whatever we do, from grubs in the soil on which infants crawl to birds and mammals visiting our houses. Nonetheless, any food from the wild needs to be healthy and sustainably managed.

In this regard, we need to be especially careful with species closely related to us. Whereas epidemic disease seems not to start from cold blooded animals, like fish and reptiles, our risk is high for some diseases carried by primates and bats. It seems wise not to eat primates and to minimise contact with bats and their excreta. It is very foolish, as well as inhumane, to bring wild mammals live to food markets. However, should we ban association with other species to which we are already adapted, or which create no disease risk? No. This would be foolish too, especially when regulated and sustainable use encourages people to live with the species and conserve their ecosystems. Moreover, this is a time when harm to economies adds pressures for development that may damage the environment. Our nature needs all the support it can get from people who value the products of healthy ecosystems.


Immediate solutions

COVID-19 hates soap! 
© Shutterstock/Red Confidential
COVID-19 hates soap! © Shutterstock/Red Confidential

Immediately, the most important thing is not to spread the virus by infecting other people. Knowledge of COVID-19 biology tells us that if the virus cannot spread between people on moist surfaces or in water droplets, it goes locally extinct. So, each of us needs to:

• Keep distant from people, to reduce contact with virus in droplets they have breathed out;

• not travel about or gather in groups, which increases both these risks;

• wear a mask when surrounded by many people in enclosed environments or crowds;

• Wash hands and disinfect surfaces to prevent transfer of virus to eyes, nose or mouth.

Moreover, washing is wise whenever we interact closely with nature. This makes us safer from many microbes, parasites and natural toxins. When greater safety returns, we need also to learn useful social lessons. We see that societies can rapidly adjust to changes, which may be required to reverse climate change. We have also seen the cost of not heeding science-based warnings.