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New WWF Report Calls for Protecting Nature to Prevent Future Pandemics

Health + Wellness
New WWF Report Calls for Protecting Nature to Prevent Future Pandemics
A Sumatran orangutan is prepared for release into the wild at Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Program's rehabilitation center in North Sumatra, Indonesia. Ulet Ifansasti / Getty Images

By Jessica Corbett

"Humanity's broken relationship with nature comes at a cost."

That cost is new zoonotic diseases, which are passed from animals to humans and "are emerging at an alarming rate." That is according to a World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) report released Wednesday as the coronavirus pandemic continues to devastate communities and economies across the globe.


The report, entitled Covid-19: Urgent Call to Protect People and Nature, issues a call for global action "to reduce the risk of future pandemics and heal our broken relationship with nature," detailing specific moves that governments, companies and industries, civil society organizations, and the public should take to help create a healthier world.

"The increased emergence of zoonotic diseases," the report explains, "is linked to two widespread environmental risks."

  • Driven by unsustainable food systems, the large-scale conversion of land for agriculture is increasing interactions between wildlife, livestock, and humans. Land conversion is destroying and fragmenting forests and other natural habitats around the world, resulting in higher levels of contact between wildlife, livestock, and humans. This problem is only set to worsen as the challenge of feeding a growing population increases and diets shift.
  • Poor food safety standards, including permitting the trade and consumption of high-risk wildlife species, are increasing human exposure to animal pathogens. Globally, demand for wild meat is growing, as either a delicacy or a necessity, driving increased sale and consumption, and increasing the potential for exposure to diseases during high-risk sourcing, handling, and preparation practices.

Given the increased emergence of such diseases and the threats pandemics pose to health, economies, and global security, the report treats the current Covid-19 crisis as a signal to the international community that rapid "systemic changes must be made to address the environmental drivers of pandemics."

 

As WWF International director general Marco Lambertini put it in a statement Wednesday: "We must urgently recognize the links between the destruction of nature and human health, or we will soon see the next pandemic."

"We must curb the high risk trade and consumption of wildlife, halt deforestation and land conversion, as well as manage food production sustainably," said Lambertini. "All these actions will help prevent the spillover of pathogens to humans, and also address other global risks to our society like biodiversity loss and climate change."

"There is no debate, and the science is clear; we must work with nature, not against it," he said. "Unsustainable exploitation of nature has become an enormous risk to us all."

Along with commenting on his group's new report, Lambertini on Wednesday co-authored a related op-ed in the Guardian with Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, executive secretary of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, and Maria Neira, director of the World Health Organization (WHO) department of environment, climate change, and health.

As of Wednesday afternoon, there were more than 8.2 million confirmed Covid-19 cases and over 444,000 deaths worldwide. The trio put the pandemic into a broader context:

We have seen many diseases emerge over the years—such as Zika, Aids, Sars, and Ebola—and although they are quite different at first glance, they all originated from animal populations under conditions of severe environmental pressures. And they all illustrate that our destructive behavior towards nature is endangering our own health—a stark reality we've been collectively ignoring for decades. Research indicates that most emerging infectious diseases are driven by human activities.

The op-ed's authors echoed WWF's calls to reform global food systems and stop destroying natural habitats, and endorsed demands that governments and international bodies have faced throughout the pandemic, writing that "we must embrace a just, healthy, and green recovery, and kickstart a wider transformation towards a model that values nature as the foundation for a healthy society, and a well-resourced and equitable economy."

"This means shifting to more sustainable practices, such as regenerative and diversified agriculture and diets, sustainable animal farming, green urban spaces, and clean forms of energy," they continued. "Not doing so, and instead attempting to save money by neglecting environmental protection, health systems, and social safety nets, has already proven to be a false economy. The bill will be paid many times over."

 

Lambertini, Mrema, and Neira expressed hope that the U.N. biodiversity summit currently scheduled for late September will serve as an opportunity for world leaders to "signal their support for a new relationship with our natural world" and "accelerate action through to next year when they are scheduled to take critical decisions on the environment, climate, and development."

The WWF report and op-ed follow a series of similar demands to reform humanity's relationship with nature on and leading up to World Environment Day earlier this month. Activists, scientists, policymakers, and other global figures declared that "the emergence of Covid-19 has underscored the fact that, when we destroy biodiversity, we destroy the system that supports human life."

In a webinar about pandemics, wildlife, and intensive animal farming a few days before World Environment Day, primatologist and conservationist Jane Goodall warned of the dire consequences of failing to overhaul unsustainable global food systems and end the destruction of nature. "If we do not do things differently, we are finished," she said. "We can't go on very much longer like this."

Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.

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Warming temperatures on land and in the water are already forcing many species to seek out more hospitable environments. Atlantic mackerel are swimming farther north; mountain-dwelling pikas are moving upslope; some migratory birds are altering the timing of their flights.

Numerous studies have tracked these shifting ranges, looked at the importance of wildlife corridors to protect these migrations, and identified climate refugia where some species may find a safer climatic haven.

"There's a huge amount of scientific literature about where species will have to move as the climate warms," says U.C. Berkeley biogeographer Matthew Kling. "But there hasn't been much work in terms of actually thinking about how they're going to get there — at least not when it comes to wind-dispersed plants."

Kling and David Ackerly, professor and dean of the College of Natural Resources at U.C. Berkeley, have taken a stab at filling this knowledge gap. Their recent study, published in Nature Climate Change, looks at the vulnerability of wind-dispersed species to climate change.

It's an important field of research, because while a fish can more easily swim toward colder waters, a tree may find its wind-blown seeds landing in places and conditions where they're not adapted to grow.

Kling is careful to point out that the researchers weren't asking how climate change was going to change wind; other research suggests there likely won't be big shifts in global wind patterns.

Instead the study involved exploring those wind patterns — including direction, speed and variability — across the globe. The wind data was then integrated with data on climate variation to build models trying to predict vulnerability patterns showing where wind may either help or hinder biodiversity from responding to climate change.

One of the study's findings was that wind-dispersed or wind-pollinated trees in the tropics and on the windward sides of mountain ranges are more likely to be vulnerable, since the wind isn't likely to move those dispersers in the right direction for a climate-friendly environment.

The researchers also looked specifically at lodgepole pines, a species that's both wind-dispersed and wind-pollinated.

They found that populations of lodgepole pines that already grow along the warmer and drier edges of the species' current range could very well be under threat due to rising temperatures and related climate alterations.

"As temperature increases, we need to think about how the genes that are evolved to tolerate drought and heat are going to get to the portions of the species' range that are going to be getting drier and hotter," says Kling. "So that's what we were able to take a stab at predicting and estimating with these wind models — which populations are mostly likely to receive those beneficial genes in the future."

That's important, he says, because wind-dispersed species like pines, willows and poplars are often keystone species whole ecosystems depend upon — especially in temperate and boreal forests.

And there are even more plants that rely on pollen dispersal by wind.

"That's going to be important for moving genes from the warmer parts of a species' range to the cooler parts of the species' range," he says. "This is not just about species' ranges shifting, but also genetic changes within species."

Kling says this line of research is just beginning, and much more needs to be done to test these models in the field. But there could be important conservation-related benefits to that work.

"All these species and genes need to migrate long distances and we can be thinking more about habitat connectivity and the vulnerability of these systems," he says.

The more we learn, the more we may be able to do to help species adapt.

"The idea is that there will be some landscapes where the wind is likely to help these systems naturally adapt to climate change without much intervention, and other places where land managers might really need to intervene," he says. "That could involve using assisted migration or assisted gene flow to actually get in there, moving seeds or planting trees to help them keep up with rapid climate change."


Tara Lohan is deputy editor of The Revelator and has worked for more than a decade as a digital editor and environmental journalist focused on the intersections of energy, water and climate. Her work has been published by The Nation, American Prospect, High Country News, Grist, Pacific Standard and others. She is the editor of two books on the global water crisis. http://twitter.com/TaraLohan

Reposted with permission from The Revelator.

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The last of the woolly rhinos went extinct in Siberia nearly 14,000 years ago, just when the Earth's climate began changing from its frozen conditions to something warmer, wetter and less favorable to the large land mammal. DNA tests conducted by scientists on 14 well-preserved rhinos point to rapid warming as the culprit, CNN reported.

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The findings are an ominous harbinger for large species during the current climate crisis. As EcoWatch reported, nearly 1,000 species are expected to go extinct within the next 100 years due to their inability to adapt to a rapidly changing climate. Tigers, eagles and rhinos are especially vulnerable.

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To figure out the cause of the woolly rhinos' extinction, scientists examined DNA from different rhinos across Siberia. The tissue, bone and hair samples allowed them to deduce the population size and diversity for tens of thousands of years prior to extinction, CNN reported.

Researchers spent years exploring the Siberian permafrost to find enough samples. Then they had to look for pristine genetic material, Smithsonian Magazine reported.

It turns out the wooly rhinos actually thrived as they lived alongside humans.

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"We really need to think about … connecting climate and energy with other issues that people wake up every day really worried about," she says, "whether it be jobs, housing, transportation, health and well-being."

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