‘To care for ourselves, we must care for nature’

Hunted: There has been a spike in poaching in many countries during lockdown. © Barcroft Images

Could animal poaching lead to a new killer virus? On World Environment Day 2020, we investigate the powerful links between human health and our attitude to nature and wildlife.

Today is the day that the UN encourages everyone to learn about and take better care of the nature that surrounds them.

But, this year, we have mostly been at nature’s mercy. A deadly new disease has jumped across species and spread around the world.

As the World Environment Day website puts it: “These are exceptional times, in which nature is sending us a message: To care for ourselves, we must care for nature.”

Jane Goodall echoed those thoughts, “If we do not do things differently, we are finished. We can’t go on very much longer like this.”

While the climate crisis will produce countless new worries, the coronavirus pandemic has shown that we are especially vulnerable to zoonotic diseases.

These disastrous illnesses are made more likely by the way we treat wildlife.

Urbanisation and deforestation have led to a rapid transformation of much of the world’s wild habitats. Combined with global warming, many animals have been forced to move into closer contact with one another.

Marie Quinney, a specialist at the World Economic Forum points out, “We have lost 60% of all wildlife in the last 50 years, while the number of new infectious diseases has quadrupled in the last 60 years.”

Continuing the illegal trade in wild animals is “societal suicide”, says Joseph Walston of the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York City.

Poachers hunt and capture wild animals, then keep them in unsanitary, stressful conditions, often involving cages – the perfect recipe to spread a new disease.

In the case of Covid-19, it is widely believed that the virus first originated in a bat before jumping to a pangolin. It is then believed to have spread to humans at a live meat market.

Since the pandemic, there has been an increase in reports of poaching. This is largely due to the fact that a slow-down in the world economy has made it difficult for many to work and buy food.

The World Food Programme estimates over 260 million people will face severe food shortages this year.

Wild animals, which can be sold for a huge profit, become a life-line. As one poacher said, “There is no work, no money and no food.” With money from tourism drying up and security services focusing on lockdown, there are few resources left with which to protect wild animals.

So, could animal poaching lead to a new killer virus?

Bush meat

Yes. The progress that has been made in protecting wildlife from poaching over the years will count for nothing when people feel that they have to take risks to feed their families. As we saw with the coronavirus, wild animals will then be brought into close contact with other animals and humans. Diseases are then more likely to spread between species.

No. Progress is being made. Live markets have been outlawed in China. Though warnings about zoonotic diseases have been in place for years, now the entire world has had to confront the danger they pose. The growing environmental and animal rights movements will make it harder for poachers to operate in the future. With fewer wild animals being sold, there will be less chance of further pandemics.

You Decide

  1. Is it right to criticise the foods people from other countries and cultures choose to eat?
  2. Do you think it is morally acceptable for poor and hungry communities to resort to poaching during an economic crisis?


  1. If you were a lawmaker, write out the rights you would grant animals to stop their exploitation.
  2. Read through the articles in Expert Links and design a chart explaining how our lifestyle choices contribute to the spread of zoonotic diseases.

Some People Say...

“He who is cruel to animals becomes hard also in his dealings with men. We can judge the heart of a man by his treatment of animals.”

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), German philosopher

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The coronavirus pandemic and the absence of tourists who are often the ‘capable guardians’ observing what goes on in the parks, gives poachers ideal opportunities to exploit animals, says a report by the non-profit the Wildlife Justice Commission. A study found that human-caused deforestation in Uganda increased the number of new animal-to-human diseases.
What do we not know?
We do not know how likely it is that poaching directly leads to the spread of zoonotic diseases. As the World Economic Forum points out: “Pandemics are [...] a hidden side effect of economic development and inequalities [...] just as carbon is not the cause of climate change, it is human activity – not nature – that causes many pandemics.”

Word Watch

Jane Goodall
Considered to be one of the world’s foremost expert on primates, Goodall is famous for spending 60 years studying the social interactions of wild chimpanzees.
An infectious disease caused by a pathogen that has jumped from a non-human animal (usually a vertebrate) to a human.
The shift when populations move from rural to urban areas, the decrease in the proportion of people living in rural areas, and the ways in which societies adapt to this change.
The removal of trees or forest from land which is then used for agricultural, residential, industrial, or commercial use. Around 15 billion trees are cut down each year.
World Economic Forum
A non-governmental organisation committed to improving the state of the world by engaging with world leaders.
A scaly, nocturnal animal. It is believed to be the most trafficked mammal in the world.
The illegal hunting or capturing of wild animals.


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