Explainer: Why protecting wildlife can prevent pandemics

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Explainer: Why protecting wildlife can prevent pandemics

MANILA, Philippines — While Manila was under lockdown in June, a chained white-breasted sea eagle, a hood still covering its eyes, was rescued from an online wildlife trader in Sampaloc. A total of four raptors were recovered in the raid. This was the second time in a year the man was caught, agents from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) said.

In the same month, 300 wild animals were seized from three poachers in Negros Occidental province. Some of the animals, which included an Asian palm civet, a sailfin lizard, and three Negros forest dragons, were already dead when they were found, the Philippine News Agency reported.

Earlier, in January, the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development (PCSD) documented the rescue of 20 pangolins from local poachers.

Conservationists are alarmed. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic curbing people's movements and trade, wildlife trafficking in the Philippines has not been tamed.

Indeed, poaching has even been on the rise since COVID-19 restrictions were imposed across the globe, according to a report from Conservation International (CI). It is both worrying and ironic: COVID-19 has been identified as a zoonotic disease, an illness passed on from animals to humans.

As of July, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases has reached more than 17 million, with over 600,000 deaths worldwide.

The Philippines, after more than four months of community quarantine, reported its largest single-day surge recently. On July 30, it logged 3,954 new infections, bringing the total to nearly 90,000 with more than 1,900 deaths.

 

Wildlife and viruses

Studies show that the exploitation of wildlife and other human activities that degrade the environment lead to an increase in interactions between animals and people, elevating the risk of zoonotic disease transmission.

“Number one is the destruction of habitats. Because of that, animals are forced to transfer to places where humans also live,” Director Ricardo Calderon of the DENR Biodiversity Management Bureau (BMB) said.

“Number two is the wildlife trade. These animals are supposed to be in the wild, but because of illegal trade, they get to interact with humans,” he added.

And then there is also the consumption of wild animals. In some parts of the world, wild animals have become part of the menu. In China, where the COVID-19 pandemic is said to have originated, they are also used in traditional medicine.

According to the United Nations, the illegal exchange, smuggling, poaching, capture and collection of endangered species or protected animals and plants, constitute the “fourth largest illegal trade worldwide.”

The Philippines has been identified as a consumer, source, and transit point for the international wildlife trade, “threatening endemic species populations, economic development, and biodiversity,” according to the Asian Development Bank. Rich in biodiversity, the country is said to contain about 80% of the earth’s plant and animal species.

“Based on the estimates of experts, we’re losing around P50 billion or $1 billion [per year] to the illegal wildlife trade,” Calderon revealed.

The Palawan pangolin, which is critically endangered, is one of the country’s most illegally traded wild animals.

“They say that its scales can treat arthritis. Some also claim that because of its hard scales, it’s a natural aphrodisiac. But there’s no scientific evidence to support this,” Calderon said. “Besides, the bacteria and viruses are also there.”
 

When viruses jump from animals to humans

Although COVID-19 poses the most serious threat to public health in recent memory, it is not the first time that a zoonotic disease has threatened the Philippines.

In 2002, 14 cases of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) arrived in the country after first being reported in Guangdong, China. Experts believe that the virus came from a bat and was passed on to a civet cat, before infecting a person in Southern China.

In 2009, some hog farm workers in Bulacan and Pangasinan were infected by the Reston ebolavirus. That virus also came from bats before making the jump to pigs.

In 2014, the country faced a Henipavirus outbreak in Sultan Kudarat, Mindanao. Just like SARS and Reston virus, experts say the virus likely came from bats before infecting horses.

According to Dr. Rontgene Solante, head of San Lazaro Hospital’s Adult Infectious Diseases and Tropical Medicine Section, most of the emerging infectious diseases that have been reported in the past three decades came from animals.

“Animals are becoming part of our life and way of living. That’s the most dangerous because the organisms within them can also adapt and become a potential infecting agent to humans,” Solante said.

Scientists estimate that some 60% of known human infectious diseases and up to 75% of emerging infectious diseases also originate from animals.

 

Protecting wildlife to avert pandemics

Experts have warned that further disease outbreaks will occur unless governments take preventive measures.

“The science is clear that if we keep exploiting wildlife and destroying our ecosystems, then we can expect to see a steady stream of these diseases jumping from animals to humans in the years ahead,” United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) Executive Director Inger Andersen said.

 

The challenge for the Philippines is not only to beat COVID-19 but also avert future pandemics. Plagued with multiple disasters, and with preparedness, response, and recovery mechanisms often found wanting, another outbreak would be devastating to the people and the economy.

Some of the steps that DENR-BMB is taking include advocating policy changes to strengthen the protection of wildlife.

“We’re moving for the amendment of Republic Act No. 9147 or the Wildlife Act so we can impose heavier fines or penalties. At the moment, after serving probation, those who get caught just go back to doing the same crimes,” Calderon said.

There is also a need to improve monitoring and regulation practices associated with zoonotic diseases. According to Solante, it is crucial to identify animals that are common sources of pathogens, like swine, exotic birds, and other wildlife.

“We have to have regulation in terms of handling exotic animals, that’s very important,” Solante added.

This video explainer first appeared on FYT and was produced with the support of Internews and Earth Journalism Network.

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