World Zoonoses Day: understanding zoonotic diseases and what can be done to prevent future pandemics

In the past few months, we have all moved through a global pandemic. As we begin to return to life post-covid, awareness of zoonotic diseases has certainly grown but there is still much to be done in order to fully understand the issue, and to prevent future outbreaks.

What is a zoonotic disease?

According to the World Health Organisation, a “zoonosis is any disease or infection that is naturally transmissible from vertebrate animals to humans. Animals thus play an essential role in maintaining zoonotic infections in nature. Zoonoses may be bacterial, viral, or parasitic, or may involve unconventional agents. As well as being a public health problem, many of the major zoonotic diseases prevent the efficient production of food of animal origin and create obstacles to international trade in animal products.”

  • Every year, 1 billion cases of human illnesses are caused by zoonoses
  • 60% of emerging diseases reported globally are zoonotic

Why is protecting nature so important for preventing future outbreaks?

By destroying the world’s landscapes to make way for development, we encroach on wildlife habitats and harm the biodiversity that we all (no matter how little we choose to believe it) rely on for the health of the planet. Not only this, but activities such as deforestation wittingly expose humans to harmful viruses carried by wildlife which could be transmitted.

  • 80% of the world’s land and ocean show evidence of development by humans
  • 700,000 of the 1.6 million+ unkown viruses in birds and mammals could pose a zoonotic risk

One identifiable solution therefore is to be more efficient with the land and ocean already modified by human activity, and to conserve the planet’s remaining wild spaces. This will in turn help to prevent further biodiversity loss and support the wildlife with which we share our home.

What does this mean for conservation of Asian wildlife?

Asian landscapes support an abundance of wildlife, and each species play a key role in maintaining the continent’s rich biodiversity and ecosystem health. From elephants, to sloth bears, to tigers and beyond, the flora and fauna across Asia (and the rest of the world) form an intricately balanced web of relationships and symbioses that ensure each others’ survival.

Tigers for example are a “keystone species”, meaning that they hold together the structure of their ecosystem and are relied upon for health and wellbeing by a number of other species – including humans.

These creatures play a vital role in preventing forest fragmentation and help to reduce environmental degradation, which are two results of the habitat encroachment caused by human development. Therefore by concentrating conservation efforts on supporting keystone species such as tigers, we can learn to live in coexistence with all of the wildlife within its ecosystem and thereby improve prevention of future zoonotic disease outbreaks.

Ensuring that wildlife corridors are in place to allow the unrestricted movement of animals is one such method of conservation which Elephant Family supports. These areas help to enrichen biodiversity, and also mean that humans are less likely to come into contact (and subsequent conflict) with wildlife.

Zoonotic diseases are not a new phenomenon, they have been around as long as humans have existed and exploited the planet’s resources for our own gain over that of wildlife. If we are to effectively prevent future global pandemics, it is vital that we educate ourselves on the delicate balance that exists between us and our ecoystems and learn to respect the natural order of our home.

We can no longer take nature for granted and instead we should support it. If we are to support our own health, we need to support the health of our planet.