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11.11.2021

Interview: Does protecting wildlife also protect human health?

Over 700,000 unknown viruses in wildlife have the potential to jump to humans as ‘zoonoses’. Veterinarian Hannah Emde explains the process and how we can prevent it.

The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated the close links between human health, animal health and a healthy environment: infectious diseases do not respect national borders. Against this backdrop, the general principle of ‘One Health’ – protecting health as a global challenge – has taken on new importance. Wildlife plays a central part in the transmission of diseases even though it makes up only around 3 per cent of mammals, with domestic animals and livestock accounting for the remainder. And wildlife is a vast reservoir of unresearched pathogens. Veterinarian and author Hannah Emde, who works for the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH on the health risks posed by the wildlife trade, tells us about these risks and how we can prevent future pandemics and keep the planet liveable.

Scientists have long debated the impact animal husbandry can have on human health. Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, disease transmission from wildlife to humans has been the focus of attention. So is protecting wildlife really an effective way of preserving global health?

Emde-Hannah

Yes, absolutely. Protecting wildlife and habitats is hugely important to global health. Let’s think about direct contact with and exploitation of animals in the wild. The wildlife trade poses substantial risks in terms of the transfer of pathogens. Animals are hunted in their natural habitat or are bred intensively for sale or for products exported as luxury goods, jewellery and impotence treatments. Pangolin scales, for example, are in demand for traditional Chinese medicines, while the faeces of viverrids are used to produce what is called ‘civet coffee’ (kopi luwak). Pathogens that would be harmless in the animals’ natural habitat become dangerous when exposed to this unnatural contact: hygiene measures are often breached, and different species, including humans, live in very close contact, creating an environment conducive to the transfer and mutation of pathogens. More than 700,000 unknown viruses in wild animals have the potential to jump to humans – zoonoses – and can cause infectious diseases such as Ebola and HIV/AIDS. It’s clear that there is an urgent need to improve hygiene standards and working practices and to reduce the demand for wildlife and wildlife products.

Debate also centres on the conflict of interest represented by people who earn a living from the wildlife trade. What can and should be done to protect wildlife in this situation? What initiatives are already in place that could be expanded?

This conflict of interest is central to the debate around regulating the wildlife trade. The International Alliance against Health Risks in Wildlife Trade, which GIZ has recently convened and launched on behalf of the German Government, is campaigning to reduce the capture and exploitation of wildlife. This must not mean that people lose their livelihoods. It is crucial that our efforts take account of population groups that depend on the wildlife trade for their income and food. Reducing the trade in wildlife and wild plants requires fair and, especially, local solutions. Within the alliance we are strengthening the exchange on this topic. Moreover, we support our partners in understanding and respecting human rights and in seeking alternative sources of income and protein. To this end, we involve local communities and indigenous peoples as well as scientists and representatives of politics and governments. Our members devise regionally tailored measures for managing wildlife and recommendations for policymakers and society. And we also call for measures to prevent pandemics, for example through research projects conducted by our members on potential health risks in wildlife trade.

The World Health Summit (WHS) recently took place in Berlin. What answers did it provide? And which key issues were not addressed?

The global debate around ‘One Health’ – the mutual dependence of human, animal and environmental health – has become much more intense over recent years. That’s good news, and it was also one of the issues addressed at the WHS. However, the current debate around policy often focuses on structures, processes and capacity that are necessary to rapidly and effectively respond to future pandemics, such as vaccine development and hygiene measures. In our view, the focus should additionally be on the prevention of zoonoses with potential to cause epidemics. That means more disease surveillance systems and less contact with wildlife. We can achieve that by joining with governments to conduct research into early identification of new pathogens across the value chain. That is also in line with the objectives of our alliance. And of course, our focus must be to reduce the global demand for wildlife and wildlife products, improve regulation of the legal wildlife trade, take stronger action against the illegal trade, and better protect biodiversity and wildlife habitats.