What follows is a summary of a webinar discussion with marine biologist and Track Two advisor Dr. Masha Vorontsova on the intersection of COVID-19, climate change, and the wildlife trade held on June 10, 2020. Watch the recording in full.
There are 1.2 million species of fauna known to scientists on the planet. Of these, 5,500 are mammals, 10,000 birds, 10,000 reptiles, 15,000 amphibians and 80,000 fish. The total number of animal species on the planet may be upwards of 50 million. We know viruses are linked to wildlife and wildlife is in turn linked to us. There are one million species of viruses just on vertebrate animals; of that million 320,000 virus species are in mammals. It was well known to specialists that these viruses might leak to humans. It was no surprise for epidemiologists and virologists when the Coronavirus pandemic hit the human population. It had been predicted by the scientific community but regretfully neglected by government officials for decades.
Civic society is ready for transformative change; three months of shelter at home has provided time for thought and reflection on the world's affairs - in politics, economics, industries. The state of the environment, and the connection between how we treat the planet and how it in turn treats us has become more pressing during the pandemic. Let's use the momentum this time has created to reverse population and consumption growth, to move from estimating wellbeing by GDP towards the wellbeing of all life on the planet. Today Earth is suffering from the loss of biodiversity: species are declining quickly - but perhaps more critically, their habitat is declining quickly. Biodiversity offers stability to ecosystems. Human development including urban sprawl, monoculture agriculture (palm oil, wheat, etc.), deforestation, livestock ranching and simple human population growth is consuming vast tracts of land that was home to a resplendent variety of flora and fauna species is being reduced each day. There is a movement abreast to preserve 30% of undeveloped wildlands and 30% of the oceans for nature by 2030. If achieved, this might help save the planet.
As human populations encroach upon wildlife habitat, wildlife gets closer to humans. And humans can extract wildlife easily as roads and transport hubs are built through wildlands.
Additionally, trade in wildlife (legal and illegal), generally estimated in the hundreds of billions annually, is putting great pressure on the thousands of species currently traded across the globe. These include thousands of charismatic species used in pet, medicine, arts and meat trades.
As habitats shrink, animals live in closer quarters and distribute diseases amongst themselves more readily. Then in wildlife markets, prevalent in many Asian countries, cages of bats sit upon, snakes, pangolins and other animals that are purchased by local populations for food. Viruses that are asymptomatic in wild animals are communicated through these traded animals to humans. And humans, traveling across oceans and continents, communicate these viruses to one another - and sometimes back to other wildlife species whose cell receptors might potentially allow the coronavirus to penetrate cells. Coronavirus infects humans, it is known to infects cats (wild and domestic), and due to the similarity of host cell receptors can potentially spread back to the wild and infect toothed whales, primates including Apes among others. Wild animals are trafficked to supply private "collections", wildlife farms, zoos and others. And through Wildlife trafficking and the pet trade diseases can readily spread.