Coronavirus pandemic is reminder of the delicate human-animal interface

The COVID-19 pandemic is a reminder of the delicate and unpredictable balance between humans and the natural world. Even as a scientist who studies the human-animal interface, I am astounded by the fact that a seemingly small human-wildlife interaction in one corner of the world can quickly have monumental impacts across the globe.

Every human being is an inextricable part of nature. Our lives are wholly dependent upon natural systems and our every-day choices profoundly influence those same natural systems. Our needs and wants drive global demand for products like grains, timber, palm oil, seafood, rare metals and even locally and legally sourced meats such as venison. This demand – along with habitat destruction to accommodate a growing human population – causes humans and wildlife to come into contact more frequently today than ever before. It is that human-wildlife interface that most likely led to this global pandemic; and it’s just as likely that it will happen again.

The good news is there are things we can do to minimize the frequency of human-wildlife encounters. As one of Denver Zoo’s wildlife conservation professionals, I not only examine my personal relationship with nature and make choices that protect wildlife on a daily basis, I also have the opportunity to help others around the world do the same – even in the time of COVID-19.

Peru’s Lake Titicaca Frogs, for example, all too often fall victim to wildlife trade. In this part of the world, it’s not uncommon to find street market stands that sell “frog shakes”. Whole frogs are blended with other ingredients and the green-brown concoction is purported to have special healing powers. Talk about an opportunity for disease to take root! So, for the past 14 years Denver Zoo has been working with governmental authorities and other organizations to warn locals and tourists, alike, of the dangers of consuming raw wildlife products. We continue this effort to encourage people to change their behaviors and make different choices today.

Diseases that jump from wildlife to livestock (or the other way around) can be just as devastating. For nearly 25 years, the Denver Zoo has been conserving wildlife of Mongolia’s arid Gobi steppe. Here, natural springs are drying up, making watering holes harder to come by. Mongolia’s nomadic livestock herders have little choice but to allow domestic animals to mix regularly with wildlife – sharing the same water sources and increasing the risk of disease transmission. It was only a few years ago when a zoonotic disease jumped from livestock to endangered saiga antelope in a different part of the country, killing two thirds (200,000) of the global saiga population. Today, Denver Zoo’s conservationists and veterinarians are on high alert, and have embarked on watering hole restoration and disease monitoring programs to guide herd management practices and minimize disease transmission risk.

At another of Denver Zoo’s active wildlife conservation field sites in Vietnam, our community-based approach saves critically endangered primates by protecting tropical forests. We collaborate with partners and local people to learn which daily activities are most impactful to nature (such as timber harvest), and design programs that empower communities to make different choices. Our fuel-efficient stove campaign, for example, gives families the option to use locally crafted efficient stoves. This program not only cuts the number of timber harvest trips in half, it reduces human presence within the forest’s natural landscape, minimizing human-wildlife interactions.

Humans and wildlife interact every day, all across the world. Those of us in the U.S. and other developed
nations must acknowledge that we, too, make choices that impact nature and the frequency of human-
wildlife interactions. And like in the examples above, we must also take action because changing our behaviors, adjusting our needs and wants, will help minimize the frequency of negative human-wildlife
encounters and reduce the risk of future pandemics.

We’ve been stuck in our homes for just one month so far, and already – in the absence of our daily activities – nature is rebounding. If this isn’t evidence that every one of our seemingly insignificant choices and  behaviors can have monumental global impact, I don’t know what is.

Dr. Amy Levine is the director of field conservation programs at the Denver Zoo

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