Interview of the Week: M. Sanjayan, CEO of Conservation International

Photo: Georgina Goodwin

ODP: COVID-19 has caused so much suffering here and around the globe.  What is the leading cause of diseases that spread from wildlife to humans?

MS: COVID-19 is a zoonotic disease. Like HIV, MERS, SARS, Hanta, and Ebola, it jumped from wildlife to people, likely through contact with an animal outside of its natural habitat. While we may never know the exact path of COVID-19’s transmission to humans, we do know that land-use change is the number one driver of emerging diseases. In recent decades wildlife populations have faced catastrophic decline, and over the same time period, infectious diseases have quadrupled. These things are linked. Ultimately, investing in keeping nature healthy, particularly keeping tropical forests standing, is an investment in human health – and clearly, as we are seeing play out, our economic health. The costs of any one of these infectious diseases to economies and societies are astronomical and many multiples of all the money we put into conservation.

ODP: What are some of the other reasons these diseases are able to spread so easily?

MS: In addition to the destruction of wildlife habitats, zoonotic diseases can spread from animal to human when people are in the same space as species they would not naturally be exposed to, for example, at wildlife markets that are unregulated or those that bring illegal wildlife trade into dense urban areas. The disease can then spread like wildfire across human populations because we have no natural immunity. When it enters human populations, a zoonotic disease is entirely new to humans – making us all essentially sitting ducks.

ODP:  What can we do to prevent viruses like this one from happening again?  Would it be effective?

MS:  To prevent future pandemics like COVID-19 there are three main things we can do as a global community:

First and foremost, we must change our relationship with nature. This means we must leave wild animals in their natural habitat and take nature into account.  Look at all the people yearning to go outside and be in nature while we are social distancing at home – the desire to be outdoors is almost priceless. We cannot go back to the old “normal” and the new normal must fully acknowledge the consequences of destroying nature and embrace the cost of protecting it.

Second, we must stop deforestation (particularly tropical deforestation) through the support of nature-based solutions – investing in policies and projects that encourage reforestation, improve management of land, and keep forests standing.

Finally, we must end illegal wildlife trade – not so much the small rural economies that rely on hunting or fishing, but by eliminating the wholesale poaching, trafficking and transportation of vast numbers of species into densely populated cities, either illegally or through loopholes that are exploited for the personal benefit of a small number of people. The costs to the planet and people are much too high to tolerate this in the future.

Together, these efforts have real potential to preserve public health, economic health, and the health of our planet.

ODP:  How could Congress help?  

MS:  The current pandemic serves as an important reminder of our connection to nature. Now is not the time to step away from supporting conservation, rather it is the perfect opportunity to support and develop nature-first policies. I encourage Congress and governments around the world to champion conservation solutions that not only benefit public health but also rebuild lives, encourage economic activity, and ultimately foster a long-term transition to sustainable societies. Policy choices that could make a difference include sustainable agriculture practices, nature-based climate solutions, well-managed carbon programs, the establishment of incentive programs for forest conservation or restoration, and restoration activities that create green job opportunities.  In the short run, Congress can help provide support for ending illegal commercially inspired trade in wildlife, the destruction of protected areas, and tropical deforestation.

ODP:  Would these solutions, like habitat conservation, have other important benefits?  

MS:  These solutions are smart economically and environmentally. They have a wide range of co-benefits, making them even more important in this uncertain economic environment. They create resilient jobs in vulnerable communities, support public health, strengthen biodiversity, and will slow climate change – another massive crisis we are facing globally. This pandemic is a lesson that everything is connected. It is common sense that COVID-19 recovery solutions should also link these things. We know that ecotourism, while important, is hugely vulnerable during times of economic downturn. We need more robust and diversified ways of making sure conservation and protection of nature are sustainably funded.

Thanks, Sanjayan, for all the work you are doing at Conservation International, to protect wildlife and habitat, and prevent future pandemics like this one.  

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