Wildlife & Biodiversity

Some unexpected lessons for living with wildlife post-COVID 

Wildlife can be tamed, killed, caged, eaten, but it can rage a silent war over us like COVID-19

By Abhijit Dutta, Kunal Sharma
Published: Monday 06 July 2020
The Chinese government has recommended a traditional Chinese medicine called ‘Angong Niuhuang Wan’, which contains rhino horn, in contradiction of its ban on wildlife trade. Photo: @ChinaDaily / Twitter

When novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) will be spoken about in the future and its impacts dissected by an army of researchers, there will be one recurrent theme that will come up each time the matter is discussed.

The coronavirus will be spoken as a zoonotic disease that originated from Wuhan’s infamous wet markets, where live and dead wildlife is traded legally and illegally and it will be spoken as the one time when nature directed the conversation with humans and not the other way around.

In the past few months, the pandemic created interesting scenarios for the post-apocalyptic observer. Millions were forced to spend most of their time indoors; streets and neighbourhoods remained empty for long periods, malls, theatres, restaurants were labelled as non-essentials and many closed down or are on the verge of closing down.

Clean air, clearer skies, frequent and louder birdsongs and less garbage on the streets became headline news and to a great extent, became a live experiment for ecological well being on a global scale.

However, perhaps even more significant were images of wildlife walking nonchalantly in urban areas. Forced into invisible man-made sanctuaries, but with a tendency to explore spaces in absence of humans, wildlife slowly reclaimed what has always been rightfully theirs as well.

As they wandered in the realms of the erstwhile crowded cityscapes, devoid of its myriad vehicles and humans, an anxious question raised was on the impact of humankind returning to the streets in their erstwhile numbers.

Global wildlife trade ban

With the fear that regular wildlife trade will soon resume, forestry personnel across the country have been keeping an eye out to prevent stray cases of opportunistic poaching.

China, which is the primary market for wildlife produce, has uncharacteristically moved to ban wildlife trade on February 24, after the country received widespread criticism for its wet markets such as the one in Wuhan.

But the trade has slowly come back, with reports indicating a growing preference for the online route to meet the demand in China.

But what begets doubts over the country’s intentions is the government’s recommendation of using Tan Re Qing, a remedy containing bear bile, to treat COVID-19 patients, which is in contradiction to their ban. The Chinese government also listed a traditional Chinese medicine called Angong Niuhuang Wan, which contains rhino horn.

In 2003, after the SARS epidemic was traced to have come from bats via civets, China had banned wildlife trade and wet markets, but reopened them after six months. The fear is that just as in 2003, the trade in wildlife will again resume surreptitiously if not openly.

In such a scenario, the threat of spread of zoonotic diseases will continue to be high besides threatening wildlife populations across the world.

Wildlife and spaces

The most likely post-COVID scenario is that animals will retreat and everything will gradually go back to the usual, as things were before. This is due to the tendency of animals to avoid human space.

New nests and dwellings may be impacted by disturbance or human presence, but such nests / dwelling will be very low in the first place. Wildlife may try to get to the places they got used to during the lockdown but eventually will stop trying.

Roadkills may be high immediately after the movement ban is lifted, but will gradually go down as the wildlife gradually withdraws into their oblivious refuge. 

One health 

The United Nations environment chief, Inger Andersen in an interview to The Guardian, said:

Never before have so many opportunities existed for pathogens to pass from wild and domestic animals to people. At the end of the day, with all of these events, nature is sending us a message. We are intimately interconnected with nature, whether we like it or not. If we don’t take care of nature, we can’t take care of ourselves. And as we hurtle towards a population of 10 billion people on this planet, we need to go into this future armed with nature as our strongest ally.

This points us towards the one health concept, which was recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2008 to fight the monster of zoonotic diseases. The concept’s three main components are food safety, zoonoses and antibiotic resistance.

The WHO suggested bringing together scientists from the fields of medicine, veterinary science, plant health and environment. India is highly vulnerable to such diseases and has a not-so-good medical policy or infrastructure.

Its reactive response to zoonotic disease, coupled with a huge burden of zoonoses, should push it harder to work towards having a strong and working one health policy.

Climate Change

“If one virus can wipe out the entire economy in a matter of weeks and shut down societies, then that is a proof that our societies are not very resilient. It also shows that once we are in an emergency, we can act and we can change our behaviour quickly,” said climate activist Greta Thunberg to New Scientist.

This is important because reduced movement is healing the environment. Can we have such lockdowns on a regular basis to propel the fight against climate change? This pandemic is showing us we can actually live on essentials without thriving on the unnecessary luxuries.

Although we are talking about a small percentage of the source of carbon emissions, small acts build up into a greater force compounded. We must realise and accept we are part of nature.

While the benefits from the virus remain debatable in the midst of such gloom, the best case scenario is that humans will become sensitive towards nature and wildlife.

They may grudgingly acknowledge and perhaps even actively realise that it is our actions that have led to habitat destruction and that, in turn, creates more probability of zoonotic diseases to spread. Wildlife can be tamed, killed, caged, eaten, but it can rage a silent war over us like COVID-19.

Should we still be like an ostrich with its head buried in sand, oblivious to the risks of wildlife trade or will we choose to be a little wiser, filled with compassion and love for the natural world around us?

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