Covid-19: A chance to reset our relationship with the natural world

May 11, 2020 | Commentary

By Dr Mark Jones – Head of Policy at Born Free Foundation

By anyone’s estimation Covid-19 is a global catastrophe on an almost unprecedented scale that has emerged, in all likelihood, because of the trade in live wild animals at a market in Wuhan, China.

It’s about a year ago that a prestigious international science-policy body called IPBES published its Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, which provided a stark reminder of just how much damage we are doing to the natural world. The 145-odd hard-nosed scientists from across 50 countries, who spent three years compiling the report, talked of nature’s ‘unprecedented decline’ with a million species at risk of extinction in the coming decades, and identified habitat loss and the overexploitation of wild animals and plants, as the major culprits. They called for ‘transformative changes’ to restore and protect nature and stressed that opposition from vested interests can be overcome for public good.

This year, 2020, was supposed to be the ‘super year’ for biodiversity, culminating in the adoption of an international strategy called the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework at the UN Convention on Biological Diversity’s biennial meeting, which was due to take place in China in October. The purpose of this framework will be to set the goals and targets for restoring and recovering nature and wildlife for the decades to come, and it will guide environmental and biodiversity policy at a global and national level.

The emergence of Covid-19, ironically from the very same country that will host the biennial meeting, has resulted in delays and cancellations which will now mean that the ‘super year’ will spill over well into 2021, delays which the natural world can ill afford.

That said, the Covid-19 catastrophe could potentially prove to be the catalyst for the real transformative changes to our relationship with nature that last year’s Global Assessment called for. Whether it does will depend on whether global society and its decision-makers heed the widespread calls to ‘build back better’, implement ‘green transitions’, and move towards a more sustainable society as we all emerge from lock-down.

The pandemic has resulted in the consequences of our destructive and exploitative relationship with nature and wildlife being felt directly by the public and policy makers across the world. Questions on what we should do about habitat destruction and conversion, wildlife trade and wild animal markets, which the wildlife NGO movement has been struggling to get onto the global policy agenda for years, are suddenly on everyone’s lips. Wildlife protection advocates and organisations have never had such an attentive global audience, and need to make the most of this opportunity to achieve real changes that will not only reduce the risk of future pandemics and protect public health, but also help to halt and reverse the devastating impacts we’re having on wildlife and the natural world.

As we look for leadership, a lot of focus has perhaps understandably fallen on the UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). But CITES is primarily concerned with regulating international commercial  trade in species to reduce the threat it poses to their survival. Of course, viruses like the one that causes Covid-19 don’t only affect threatened species, nor do they restrict themselves to species in international trade, or to those in which trade is illegal or regulated – so we have to look beyond the likes of CITES to other international bodies. The World Health Organisation and the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) both have a key role to play in providing advice and support to governments, alongside the UN Environment Conventions.

This is also a time like never before for wildlife advocates and organisations to work collectively, in order to ensure their messaging to the public, and to governments and other key institutions, is consistent and effective, and to hammer home the message that ‘business as usual’ cannot be an option as the world emerges from Covid-19.

And it’s not just about advocating for wildlife market bans or trade restrictions. We need to think outside of the Environment box towards improving ways of mobilising resources and finances for nature protection from across the public and private sectors, and addressing the associated human development issues. We need to focus on the fact that so often the bulk of the burden for protecting nature falls on impoverished, debt-ridden developing countries that can ill-afford the cost, and will be hit hard by the dramatic downturn we’ve seen in international wildlife tourism on which they depend for funding. We need to change the paradigm that currently sees far more public and private money being used to subsidise and fund industries and practices that are harmful to biodiversity and the environment, than is spent on protecting nature. We need to recognise that many people rely on wildlife consumption for their subsistence, and encourage initiatives that deliver alternative sources of protein to subsistence consumers of wild animals, in order to protect wildlife from overexploitation and reduce the risk to human health. And we need to encourage investment in alternative livelihoods for those who currently rely on the damaging exploitation of nature and wildlife for their living.

Progress on poverty and inequality reduction, education, gender equality, tackling corruption, and moving towards sustainable food production and consumption, are all critical for the successful protection of nature. This requires the mainstreaming of biodiversity protection across government departments and policy sectors. It’s encouraging to see the Dasgupta Review into the Economics of Biodiversity, which was commissioned by the UK Treasury, making the link between biodiversity loss and climate change, and aiming to set out a framework for economic thinking that fully accounts for Nature and the risks that emerge from its decline.

By working effectively together and developing consistent messaging and deliverable approaches, the civil society sector can play a big part in influencing and implementing the kind of changes we need to see in relation to policies on international debt, overseas development aid, trade negotiations, the valuing of nature as an asset, and collaboration across the public and private sectors.

I also want to make a strong case for a focus on animal welfare to be included in this debate. This isn’t just because I want to see animals treated with a great deal more respect for their own sake. It’s also because, when animals are intensively bred or captured from the wild, transported for slaughter at markets or in restaurants, or traded live as pets or photo props, more often than not in appalling conditions, their welfare will be compromised and their immune systems suppressed, making it much more likely that they will contract and shed pathogens, increasing the risk to other animals and, ultimately, to people. So if we want to look after our own health and welfare in future, we need to look after the health and welfare of animals.

There are two important initiatives we can coalesce around.

First the One Health concept, which aims to bring together multiple sectors and disciplines working to attain optimal health for people, animals and the environment at local, national and global levels. One Health is already embraced by the likes of the World Organisation for Animal Health and the World Health Organisation.

The other is the  broader One Welfare initiative which promotes the recognition that animal welfare, the wellbeing biodiversity and the environment are all connected to human wellbeing. In some senses it provides an umbrella concept within which One Health sits, so we need to push for it to be front and centre in policy initiatives that emerge from the Covid-19 crisis.

In summary, we really need to dig deep and reset our fundamental relationship with the natural world, rethink our place in it and treat our planet and all its inhabitants with a great deal more respect, for its sake and for ours. To that end, civil society has a vital role to play to ensure nature, wildlife protection and animal welfare are mainstreamed on the public policy agenda.

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