Jane Goodall is a primatologist and founder of the conservation organization The Jane Goodall Institute.
Each day, we all follow the news and pray that lockdown will end in country after country as the peak COVID-19 infection and death rate is reached and then gradually drops. This has already happened in China, thanks to the stringent measures undertaken by the Chinese government. We hope that a vaccine will soon be developed and that we can gradually get back to normal. But we must never forget what we have been through and we must take the necessary steps to prevent another such pandemic in the future.
The tragedy is that a pandemic of this sort has long been predicted by those studying zoonotic diseases (those that, like COVID-19, spill over from animals into humans). It is almost certain that this pandemic started with such a spillover in China’s Wuhan seafood market that also sold terrestrial wildlife for food. When wild animals are sold in such markets, often illegally, they are typically kept in small cages, crowded together, and often slaughtered on the spot. Humans, both vendors and customers, may thus be contaminated with the fecal material, urine, blood and other bodily fluids of a large variety of species – such as civets, pangolins, bats, raccoon dogs and snakes. This provides a perfect environment for viruses to spill over from their animal hosts into humans. Another zoonotic disease, SARS, originated in another wildlife market in the province of Guangdong.
It is not only in China that wildlife markets have provided the ideal conditions for viruses and other pathogens to cross the species barrier and transfer from animal hosts to us. There are markets of this sort around the world. In the bushmeat markets of Africa – where live and dead animals are sold for food – the hunting, slaughtering and selling of chimpanzees for food led to two spillovers from apes to humans that resulted in the HIV-AIDS pandemic. Ebola is another zoonotic disease that crosses from animal reservoirs into apes and humans in different parts of Africa.
Another major concern is the trafficking of wild animals and their body parts around the world. Unfortunately, this has become a highly lucrative multibillion-dollar business, often run by criminal cartels. Not only is it very cruel and definitely contributing to the terrifying extinction of species, but it may also lead to conditions suitable for the emergence of zoonotic diseases. The shocking pet trade in young wild monkeys and apes, birds, reptiles and other wild animals is another area of concern; a bite or scratch from a wild animal taken into the home could lead to something much more serious than a mild infection. Exporting wild animals or their parts, often illegally, from one country to another, takes their viruses and bacteria with them. Finally, the horrific conditions in which billions of domestic animals are confined in at the so-called factory farms around the world have also led to the creation of zoonotic diseases.
Once COVID-19 was recognized as a new zoonotic disease, the Chinese authorities imposed a ban on the selling and eating of wild animals, the Wuhan wildlife market was closed down and the farming of wild animals for food was forbidden. However, there are thousands of small operations throughout Asia and other parts of the world where wild animals are bred for food as a way of making a living in rural areas. Unless alternative sources of income for these people, as well as for others exploiting wildlife to make a living, can be found and they can get help from their governments during their transition, it is likely that these operations will be driven underground and become even more difficult to regulate.
Nevertheless, it is clearly of great importance that the ban on trading, eating and breeding of wild animals for food should be permanent and enforced – for the sake of human health and the prevention of other pandemics in the future. Fortunately, a majority of Chinese and other Asian citizens who responded to surveys agree that wildlife should not be consumed, used in medicine or for their fur.
Many people believe that we have come to a turning point in our relationship with the natural world. We need to halt deforestation and the destruction of natural habitats around the globe. We need to make use of existing nature-friendly, organic alternatives and develop new ones, to feed ourselves and to maintain our health. We need to eliminate poverty so that people can find alternative ways to make a living other than by hunting and selling wild animals and destroying the environment. We need to assure that local people, whose lives directly depend on and are affected by the health of the environment, own and drive good conservation decisions in their own communities as they work to improve their lives. Finally, we need to connect our brains with our hearts and appropriately use our Indigenous knowledge, science and innovative technologies to make wiser decisions about people, animals and our shared environment.
While there is a justified focus on bringing COVID-19 under control, we must not forget the crisis with potentially long-term catastrophic effects on the planet and future generations – the climate crisis. The movement calling for industry and governments to impose restrictions on the emission of greenhouse gases, to protect forests and clean up the oceans, has been growing.
My hope is that an understanding of how the world should be, along with the realization that it is our disrespect of the natural world that has led to the current pandemic, will encourage businesses and governments to put more resources into developing clean, renewable energy, alleviating poverty and helping people to find alternative ways of making a living that do not involve the exploitation of nature and animals.
Let us realize we are part of, and depend upon, the natural world for food, water and clean air. Let us recognize that the health of people, animals and the environment are connected. Let us show respect for each other, for the other sentient animals and for Mother Nature. For the sake of the well-being of our children and theirs, and for the health of this beautiful planet Earth, our only home.
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