Forests, Wildlife, and the Next Pandemic

2020 was supposed to be a ‘super-year’ for nature – the year in which modern industrial society finally got around to redefining its relationship with the natural world. But then nature bit back.

Gorilla (© Ian Redmond, Born Free)© Ian Redmond, Born FreeA series of major UN meetings were set to conclude what, in UN-speak, is termed the ‘post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework’ as well as make progress on the implementation of the Paris Climate agreement. In addition to Conferences of the Parties, or CoPs, to three UN conventions - CMS CoP13¹ hosted by India, CBD CoP15² to be hosted by China and UNFCCC CoP26³ to be hosted by the UK in Glasgow) we were looking forward to the IUCN Congress in Marseille and FSC General Assembly in Bali. But a few strands of self-replicating RNA in the shape of a new virus, SARS-Cov-2, caused us to hit the global pause button in a way that few would have thought possible. The Covid-19 pandemic has caused death, suffering and economic chaos on an unprecedented scale. The question everyone is asking is how do we best reduce the risk of anything like this happening again. What can we do differently – individually and collectively – to avoid the next pandemic. And how much will it cost?

(© Ian Redmond, Born Free)© Ian Redmond, Born FreeAs reported in the Guardian, an analysis by a multi-disciplinary team of leading scientists concluded that “Spending of about $260bn (£200bn) over 10 years would substantially reduce the risks of another pandemic on the scale of the coronavirus outbreak, the researchers estimate, which is just 2% of the estimated $11.5tn costs of Covid-19 to the world economy. Furthermore, the spending on wildlife and forest protection would be almost cancelled out by another benefit of the action: cutting the carbon dioxide emissions driving the climate crisis.”

It has become clear that opportunities for zoonotic diseases to jump species, from wild animals to humans, have increased greatly in our lifetime. The destruction and fragmentation of natural habitats for agriculture and infrastructure, linked to globalisation and the expanding commercial trade in wildlife products, means that such events happen more often and have potentially greater consequences. Whether the trade is legal or illegal matters not to a virus or bacterium – opportunity is all that counts. In effect, we all have to re-examine our activities through a public health lens and take precautions to reduce the risk of transmission. For FSC members, each step in the chain from a tree being felled to a product being sold has to have a new element in the chain of custody assessment – what opportunities are there for new or known pathogens to infect new hosts. Having identified the potential transmission points, what steps can we take to prevent that transmission. The measures already adopted in shops and factories are well known – hand-washing, mask-wearing and social distancing – but what about in forests?

(© Ian Redmond, Born Free)© Ian Redmond, Born FreeThe Born Free Foundation has submitted a motion⁴ for the next General Assembly, in consultation with members of all three chambers, for FSC to adopt best-practice guidelines for management of wildlife in Forest Management Units. The motivation for such a step derives from the ‘One Health – One Welfare’ concept of conservation and animal welfare, in that the health of the forest reflects the health of the animals (wild and domestic) and the people who live there. A global pandemic of zoonotic origin suddenly makes this concept very real. Concern for the animals and the ecosystem is not enough – what about the disease risk? Whether disturbing a bat-roost when felling trees, controlling a species perceived to be a pest (and then handling the carcases) or causing the unintended, incidental death and injury of arboreal animals, we must now consider such things in a new light.

When logging operations disturb wildlife, we must ask what measures are in place to minimise that disturbance and any associated mortality? If there is a closed season for logging imposed by local authorities when animals are breeding, for example, FSC members would of course obey the law. But such legislation varies from country to country, and in each place may be open to interpretation. Would it not be better if FSC had its own policy on wildlife management, based on internationally accepted standards and norms, to lead the way in countries where the rules are unclear, un-enforced or non-existent? If FSC is to live up to its rhetoric of ‘Forests for All, Forever’ it is essential that - as well as harvesting trees sustainably and treating workers and indigenous communities well - we also to respect the animals in a forest ecosystem. The benefits of doing so are many, and the cost of not doing so – if Covid-19 is an example – are incalculable.

By adopting and implementing robust, responsible and humane animal management practices, FSC will not only be helping to reduce the risks of future pandemics; it will also be making an important contribution towards achieving the ambitions of the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework, and helping to limit the impacts of climate change. In doing so, FSC can become a part of the process of building back better, for the sake of biodiversity and people alike.

A virtual round table on ‘A Bioconservation Agenda to Avoid Zoonotic Pandemics of the Future’ took place on 29th July, where global experts gathered to call for amendments to CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) & CBD (Convention on Biological Diversity), political will and a transformation of finance systems to prevent future zoonotic pandemics. Find out more here.

This is an opinion piece by Ian Redmond OBE writing for Born Free Foundation, an environmental member of FSC. FSC is a democratic organisation that is governed by its members. If you or your organisation want to have a real influence on the future of the world’s forests and shape the future of responsible forest management, find out more about FSC membership here.

1. Convention on Migratory Species
2. Convention on Biological Diversity
3. UN Framework Convention on Climate Change
4. “A pathway towards ensuring high and consistent standards of animal management in FSC certified forests, generating reputational, social, biodiversity, public health and economic benefits while respecting cultural practices.”

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