Right now the whole world is dealing with the appalling consequences of the coronavirus outbreak, but we cannot forget about the cause. The coronavirus was caused by our broken relationship with nature.

There are a lot of conspiracy theories flying around as to the virus’ origins. These range from the absurd 5G theory, favoured by David Icke and Eamon Holmes, to the “it was created in a lab” theory, supported by Mike Pompeo and other intellectual giants of the current US administration. So far, the most amusing conspiracy theory I’ve heard is that some guy in China forced a bat to have sex with a pangolin. As ridiculous as this sounds, it’s actually not that far from the truth!

Genetic evidence points towards the coronavirus having jumped from a reservoir host – probably a bat – into an intermediate host – probably a pangolin, and then into a person, a process you all now know is called zoonotic spill-over.

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Bats, pangolins, and hundreds of other species are stripped from the forests or bred in wildlife farms and then trafficked, stored and slaughtered in appalling conditions. Species that would never normally encounter each other in the wild, are crammed alive into cages, mixing with the blood, guts, and excreta of other animals, in what are highly stressful conditions, meaning these animals are immunocompromised, and much more likely to contract or to transmit an infection.

Recent research has demonstrated that ~2/3 of emerging infectious diseases come from animals, and of these, ~71% come from wild animals. This is not a new phenomenon, think about the bubonic plague, rabies, Spanish flu, HIV, BSE, SARS and hundreds more, but the rate of zoonotic spill-over has quadrupled in the last half century due to the accelerating destruction of natural habitats and the growing trade and consumption of wild animals.

A huge proportion of this trade is illegal, a multi-billion-dollar industry run by the same organised criminals who traffic guns, drugs and people across international borders.

If we take a look at the numbers for a moment, the World Bank have estimated that the illegal wildlife trade generates around $20 billion per year in illicit proceeds, which rises to $200 billion if you take into account the illegal trade in fish and timber, and the loss of ecosystem services as a result of this has been estimated at 1-2 trillion dollars.

Despite this, anything to do with wildlife has traditionally been seen as a conservation issue, the type of thing former Prime Minister David Cameron famously referred to as ‘green crap’ and therefore of little concern to politicians, to law enforcement, to business, or to society at large.

But now that hundreds of thousands of people are dying and the global economy has ground to a halt, conservation and animal welfare can no longer be regarded as fringe issues, as it is obvious that they affect us all: If the Brazilian Amazon burns, the whole planet suffers; if the Greenland ice sheet melts, the whole planet suffers; if a pangolin is poached in the DRC, trafficked through Dubai, and consumed in Wuhan, the whole planet suffers.

For far too long people have made the mistake of thinking that by funding environmental protection you are automatically eliminating funds from human development. But on the contrary, the environment doesn’t undermine our economy, it props it up.

When former Chancellor Phillip Hammond complained last June that it would cost too much to green the UK economy, he couldn’t have been more wrong. Think about the cost in lives as well as cash of the massive floods in the UK this winter, or of the Australian bushfires, or of the coronavirus, all of which were directly caused by poor environmental policy.

So, what can we do to make sure there isn’t another pandemic like this? Firstly, we must stop the flow of wildlife at its source, which is precisely what my organisation National Park Recue does. In the two years we’ve been working in Chizarira National Park in Zimbabwe, indicators of poaching are down 98%, elephant poaching is down 90% and arrests are up 550% – pertinently, we are currently prosecuting two pangolin traffickers. NGOs such as ours demonstrate that dramatic change can be achieved in source countries, and we need greater investment in truly effective organisations, so that this level of protection can be applied across the world, wherever there’s a source of wildlife products.

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Secondly, there must be profound changes in how we – as a global community – protect natural habitats and combat wildlife crime. Wildlife crime must be embedded in the UN Convention Against Transnational Organised Crime, and these laws enforced, and Ecocide should be added to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.

Banning live wildlife markets and properly enforcing the laws around wildlife crime is an obvious starting point, but what we require is a seismic shift in the way we treat our natural resources; incorporating planetary health into national and international budgets and creating laws around Ecocide would be that seismic shift. 

Right now it is hard to look beyond the human toll of the crisis, the millions of lives irreversibly damaged and the trillions of dollars wiped off the global economy. But once the immediate impact has subsided, and we are no longer scrambling to keep pace with the spread of the virus, it is vital that the international community comes together to ensure that this never happens again. And the way we do that, is by fixing our relationship with nature. 

Originally published on LinkedIn.com


  • Niall McCann

    National Geographic Explorer. Conservation Director. PhD Conservation Biology. Presenter. Speaker. Mountain Rescue. FRGS