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21 September 2020

Where the wild viruses are: how the extinction crisis message is shifting in the wake of Covid-19

The same nature documentaries that once took great pains to remove humans from the frame are now desperate to return us to the story.

By India Bourke

Beings of demons and darkness, bats have long been vilified in Western culture. That aversion may have seemed justified with the arrival of Covid-19, a zoonotic disease probably derived from the species. Yet, as a new UN biodiversity report pressed home last week, it is humanity’s own transgressions upon nature, and not bats, that have come back to bite.

The proximity that allowed the novel coronavirus to make the jump from a bat to a human was probably due to the manmade habitat loss and climate change destroying wildlife across the globe, scientists have said. And it is an onslaught that is occurring on an ever-increasing scale.

According to the UN’s fifth Global Biodiversity Outlook, released on 15 September, human activity is continuing to destroy habitats worldwide, threatening to wipe out wildlife populations as well as endangering human health and security. One million species of animals and plants were reported in 2019 to be at risk of extinction – but not a single 2010 target to prevent this destruction has yet been reached, the report says.

“As nature degrades, new opportunities emerge for the spread to humans and animals of devastating diseases,” said Elizabeth Mrema, executive director for the Convention on Biological Diversity.

The UN report echoes the warning earlier this month from the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and the Zoological Society of London that global animal populations are now in freefall, having plummeted by more than two-thirds on average in the last 50 years. Creatures in Latin America and the Caribbean have been worst hit, followed by those in Africa and Asia Pacific. “A lost decade for nature” was how the title of an RSPB paper released last Monday (14 September) described the UK government’s failure to meet the UN targets.

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Yet as we move toward an extinction tipping point, it does now finally seem a shift is occurring, at least in perceptions of the extent of the crisis. Perhaps this is related to the unprecedented disturbances caused by the global pandemic; or simply that climate chaos is now unfolding with fearsome regularity before our eyes – in the sky-staining wildfires in California and Brazil, and in the “extremely active” hurricane season pummelling America’s Atlantic coast.

As a consequence, the same nature documentaries that once took such great pains to remove people from the frame are now desperate to return us to the story. In his latest film exploring the effects of this rapid loss of animal life, Extinction: The Facts, which aired on BBC One on Sunday 13 September, David Attenborough made an almost apologetic plea for a greater understanding of biodiversity loss: “I’ve encountered some of the world’s most remarkable species… Only now do I realise just how lucky I’ve been.”

Novelists are also joining the challenge of ethically road-testing our future response, such as Diane Cook in The New Wilderness, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and as sci-fi writer Kim Stanley Robinson continues to do to great acclaim, as I’ve written previously. Plus, a whole new generation of climate activists are sending a stern message to governments across the world: “You must take action.”

But what kind of action should that be? In reaction to the Global Biodiversity Outlook, UN secretary general António Guterres has said the world must now “build back better” from the ruptures of Covid-19. But how?

According to a WWF statement, saving nature means “overhauling how we produce and consume food, so that no more land is converted for agriculture or precious habitats destroyed”. But what would doing so mean for the expanding human population? As an article in Nature recently posited, militarised conservation areas protected by digital fencing and drones might save some of the most endangered species from extinction, as well as limit the spread of zoonotic disease, but at what cost to the people who currently live and depend on these landscapes?

Questions like these will continue to loom over the UN biodiversity summit in New York on Friday 30 September, and beyond that at next May’s postponed UN biodiversity talks in Kunming, China.

Although the pandemic has in many ways thrown the fate of the natural world into further flux, it has also shown that protecting nature’s health is essential if we are also to protect our own.

Far from the demonic creatures once depicted, we know now that bats spread life by pollinating everything from mangoes to tequila plants. We also know they are deeply sociable creatures. And we wonder whether their genomes might unlock the secrets of longer health-spans, echolocation and even disease resistance, as research teams such as Bat1K are starting to explore.

To continue losing them at our present rate, before we have identified even a fraction of their species (researchers estimate we have covered 25 per cent), would be to tear up the richness of the Earth’s fabric, perhaps beyond repair.

As My Octopus Teacher, another new documentary which was trending last week on Netflix, suggests, our well-being depends on the insights revealed by respectful, careful and humane interactions with other species. The legacy of the pandemic’s zoonotic origins should be to bring us closer to such relationships, not to lock wildlife away in heavily restricted zones, or worse, to give up on trying to save it at all.

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