By Dr. Dave Samuel
Obviously, COVID-19 has dominated our news for the past eight months. But it has also brought our attention to some wildlife diseases and problems that must be resolved.
The debate about how this pandemic got started has tailed off in the past few months. Initially, there was all kinds of news on how COVID-19 got started. Was it “created” in a lab in Wuhan, China? Did China release it by accident (or on purpose) to impact the United States? Or did it spread from wildlife, in particular bats, in an open market where people in Wuhan go to buy meat and other foods? Bats carry other COVID strains, and humans who consume those species can become infected, so the idea that it came from bats to humans who ate them isn’t far-fetched.
Such open markets, where animals are sold for food, are found everywhere in Southeast Asia. For example, field rats are a popular food item in Vietnam. These rats have one to six coronaviruses, and 55 percent of rats sold in restaurants had at least one coronavirus. There are other examples, but the fact is that COVID-19 brought this open-market problem to worldwide attention, and this led to an outcry and a push to make the sale of animals in such markets illegal. Although Chinese officials publicly showed concern and issued statements, it should be obvious by now that closing such markets is nearly impossible. Can another pandemic come from such markets? The better question is, “How soon?”
Subsequent publications noted that there are many mammal-borne diseases that humans can get, and global conditions are changing that favor this happening. Loss of wildlife habitat forces wildlife to live closer to humans, including living in cities. Poaching wildlife in parts of the globe, where people are starving, is on the rise. Poached meat is sold in the same open markets mentioned above. We’ve all seen videos and photos of huge numbers of monkeys living freely in India and Nepal. Obviously, when wildlife lives in close quarters to humans, the spread of disease is enhanced.
Remember, these viral diseases mutate, so the fact that they do not initially impact humans is no guarantee that we won’t get diseases from them in the future. The answer is to restrict wildlife markets and wildlife trafficking, but that will be difficult in countries where those things are a part of the culture. To conclude this section on how the virus has changed our thinking, we need to pay more attention to how we interact with wildlife and find better ways to coexist safely with wildlife in shared habitats.
COVID-19 has had other impacts on wildlife. By now, most people know that white-nose syndrome has obliterated bat numbers in the United States. There are various research projects underway all over the country, but COVID-19 has curtailed fieldwork. An example is the surveillance planned for the white-nose fungus in Arizona this year. That work has been stopped. One reason is that workers in caves might transfer COVID to each other. Another reason is the fear that workers with COVID-19 might transfer it to bats with immune systems that are already compromised because of white-nose syndrome. Both the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Canadian Wildlife Health Co-Operative are recommending that fieldwork on bats, where bats are handled, be stopped for the time being. The Waterfowl Breeding Population and Habitat Survey has been going on yearly since 1955, but it has been cancelled this year. Also gone for the year is the sandhill crane survey and the American woodcock singing ground survey. Millions of American employees have been homebound because of the virus, and those doing fieldwork on wildlife are no different.
COVID has also impacted African wildlife a great deal. Consider the fact that the tourism industry has almost disappeared — almost no photo safaris, and reduced hunting safaris because of the virus. Fewer hunters in the bush means more freedom for poachers to go there. Rhino poaching in Africa has escalated because of COVID-19. How can that be? Rhinos don’t get corona, so how is this pandemic causing their demise? In 2008, only 262 rhinos were poached in all of Africa. In 2018, there were 892 poached. Almost assuredly, that number is going up today. Since males don’t breed until they are 10 years old and females not until they are six or seven, and the females then breed once every two to three years, a loss of that magnitude is not good.
Here is where the virus comes in. On March 23, South Africa imposed a national lockdown, similar to what we’ve seen in other countries. Neighboring Botswana also initiated a national lockdown. Once that occurred, poaching increased, and here’s why.
With the lockdown came the disappearance of tourists in National Parks and Wildlife Reserves. This means fewer rangers working in the parks, and fewer poaching patrols because of loss of revenues. With no tourism, the National Parks, such as Kruger, are basically empty, making poaching incursions easier, especially during the full moon when poachers can move about without using lights. The fewer tourists and workers moving around the parks, the more likely illegal activities can occur. Combine that with the fact that with many more citizens unemployed, more people resort to poaching, or are in some way involved with poaching syndicates.
The Okavango Delta in Botswana is a wonderful tourist destination, but it is now empty. In the past 11 months, at least 46 rhinos have been killed. Poaching of all types of wildlife has also escalated in other parts of the world. Nepal has reported increased poaching of elephants and gharial (an endangered species). There, it has been suggested that COVID-19 caused unemployed citizens to leave urban areas and return to their homes in rural areas where they can take better advantage of poaching for meat and income from the sale of meat.
Other countries, such as India, have linked the possible increase in poaching to fewer people moving about to detect poachers during lockdown. From a wildlife perspective, we tend to take things for granted in our country because our system of wildlife management and law enforcement is so good. Hunting and hunters pay most of the bills, and although some hunting has been lost for the year (e.g. spring black bear hunting in Alaska and Canada), things will eventually rebound. Although we do have some poaching, we also have great conservation officers doing a wonderful job for our wildlife.
Other countries are not so fortunate. Once this all passes, it will be a major struggle to regain finances used to control poaching in many countries. Certain species, such as the white and black rhino, may not recover. Just more reasons to be concerned about COVID-19.