The Truth Behind Returning Wildlife Is Less Feel-Good Than You Think

In Wildlife
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The writer is WWF-Singapore’s Conservation Director, Elizabeth Clarke.

Stories of returning wildlife are a welcome distraction at this time, but they are not unique to a world in pandemic.

If the past few weeks have not been bewildering enough, for some it may seem like wildlife is “reclaiming the streets”.

Our local otters have dropped by some koi ponds for a premium snack. You may have also heard of the king cobra slithering towards Marsiling MRT and the herd of boars scavenging for food in Pasir Ris.

Around the world, there have been stories about sheep cavorting in children’s playgrounds in Wales, sika deer taking to the streets near Japan’s Nara Park and kangaroos bounding down the streets of Adelaide.

Could an outcome of this pandemic be the inadvertent rewilding of our world?

A WELCOME DISTRACTION

This scenario should be welcome news for a conservationist like me, whose work aims to restore natural environments and biodiversity.

The truth, however, is probably simpler. While some wildlife could be emboldened by our absence, in most cases, these animals are searching for food.

With disruption in public activity, usual sources of food for urbanised wildlife may suddenly become less available. Naturally, they start roaming a larger territory in search of food, probably helped by reduced human traffic and city noise.

Such stories are a welcome distraction at this time, but they are not unique to a world in pandemic. The wildlife we notice now is less of a resurgence, than the realisation that we live in a shared space.

In Singapore, we share our urban environment with local macaques, reptiles, birds and other wildlife. As with every shared living environment, conflict may sometimes seem inevitable – just ask the people who we’ve been cooped up with at home.

A typical reaction to the presence of wildlife in our living environment is “Not in my backyard!” Wildlife encounters have been met with hostility.

In Singapore, snakes have been beaten to death simply for being in a garden. Elsewhere, elephants have been poisoned for venturing into plantations, raiding and trampling crops.

With shrinking forest habitats and expanding farms, human-elephant conflict has escalated, especially in Thailand’s Eastern Forest Complex.
©WWF-Thailand

But while we discuss the phenomena of returning wildlife, we risk ignoring a larger irony. Wildlife in urban environments may be a passing curiosity, but human encroachment on wildlife habitat is the very reason we are in lockdown battling the COVID-19 pandemic.

There is considerable speculation about the origins of COVID-19 but scientists are certain it is a zoonotic disease, caused by a human being coming into contact with an animal, whether a bat or another animal that carried the coronavirus.

LINK TO ZOONOTIC DISEASES

Closer and more frequent contact with wildlife increases the spillover of pathogens from wildlife to humans.

Previous pandemics have started in similar ways: Whether due to wild meat consumption (ebola); direct interaction with live wildlife; intermediate hosts such as civets (SARS), or domestic animals such as poultry (avian influenza).

With its suspected origins in a wildlife market, COVID-19 is no exception.

Tropical forests are home to millions of species including microbes and host animals. When intact, they act as a buffer protecting us from zoonotic diseases.

When these forests are destroyed, this natural buffer disappears. It is no surprise then that a third of emerging infectious diseases are linked to deforestation.

In spite of the knowledge we have about the impacts of deforestation, 16 million hectares of forest are cut down annually with no sign of a slowdown.

Burnt down peat swamps in the Sebangau National Park, Central Kalimantan, Indonesia.
WWF-Indonesia / Bhayu Pamungkas

From Southeast Asia to Brazil, we are clearing land to feed our demand for timber, soy, palm oil, beef and rubber. Likewise in Singapore and many growing cities, we clear land to make way for roads and buildings.

Put bluntly, our staggering assault on nature may have created an infectious disease breeding ground over which we have no control.

ROLE OF WILDLIFE TRADE

Pandemic risk is linked not just to habitat loss, but also to the exploitation of wildlife for trade and consumption.

How exactly COVID-19 was transmitted remains uncertain. What’s certain though, is that wildlife trade brings together animals (dead or alive) of varying species and sources into close proximity, especially in wildlife markets.

Weak to no enforcement of laws in these markets, coupled with the absence of any veterinary controls, increase the risk of pathogens being transmitted to humans.

The illegal wildlife trade affects more than 7,000 animal and plant species worldwide. As a global transhipment hub, Singapore has inadvertently facilitated the illegal trade of wildlife.

Over 2019, Singapore authorities seized an unprecedented amount of pangolin scales and elephant ivory, worth more than S$170 million in total. A few of the seizures that year were among the largest the world has seen.

Allowing illegal wildlife trade to continue sets up a lose-lose situation for us: The loss of biodiversity, and increased transmission risk of new viruses anywhere along illegal trade routes.

A CHANCE TO BUILD SOMETHING BETTER

Many are asking how life will look like after the pandemic. Our relationship with nature has shaped the situation we currently find ourselves in. We cannot return to normal, when normal led us to this.

There are three things that we must do differently to ensure this does not happen again.

First, we must take steps to protect intact ecosystems and restore degraded forests globally. Only with strong legislation and effective enforcement can we protect our remaining natural spaces.

Striking a balance between development needs and protecting nature has never been an easy choice in Singapore.

But our experience with this pandemic must teach us that nature is intrinsic to our survival and economic welfare and must be a cornerstone for any development planning.

In Singapore and beyond, we need to demand for the sustainable production of commodities like palm oil, rubber, soy, pulp and paper. This ensures the products we use are deforestation-free and not made at the expense of the natural environment.

Second, where poaching and consumption of wildlife still thrive, we must crack down on illegal trade and close unregulated markets.

With the support of the Laos government, WWF has successfully shut down four illegal wildlife shops at Don Sao Market, in the Golden Triangle, on 27 July 2018.

Recognising the origin of COVID-19, China declared on Feb 24 a comprehensive ban on wildlife trade and the consumption of wild animals.

In Singapore, we applaud the recent changes to the now renamed Wildlife Act, which strengthens protection of local wildlife by addressing threats such as the poaching and feeding of wildlife.

This must come together with a move to shut down transnational illegal trade via Singapore’s ports and airport.

Third, we need to acknowledge that preserving nature is key to economic recovery post-pandemic.

According to the WEF’s New Nature Economy Report released in January, more than half of the world’s GDP is moderately or highly dependent on nature. For instance, the global US$2.5 trillion agriculture sector is dependent on pollination, water quality and a stable climate.

COVID-19 has brought carbon-intensive industries to a grinding halt – we can make use of this momentum by shifting investments to and creating new jobs in sustainable businesses.

Here in Southeast Asia, the shift has already begun. Clean energy industries in this region could create up to 2.2 million jobs by 2030.

Our health is intricately linked to the health of all life on Earth. As we rebuild our economy after COVID-19, we need to acknowledge the damage we have done and work on repairing our relationship with nature.

This is the only way we can better protect ourselves and loved ones from future health and climate crises.

This commentary first appeared on Channel News Asia, 7 June 2020.

If you like reading this, read more about 10 threatened species in Singapore, WWF’s recommendations to strengthen enforcement and shut down illegal wildlife trade routes via Singapore, and how wildlife protectors are coping in times of COVID-19.

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