The Cost Of Harming Nature
National Geographic Magazine India|September 2020
The pandemic proves it: By damaging the planet, we have sapped nature’s power to protect us from diseases.
ENRIC SALA

Since my childhood by the Mediterranean Sea, I’ve been enchanted by the diversity of life on our planet and eager to learn all I could about it. I’ve spent much of my career studying the ocean food web, wherein the course of natural events the smallest of the small are consumed by larger and larger predators, often ending in us. But scientists know there is more to the story, and I’ve been humbled to see life on our planet brought to a standstill by a tiny virus.

From a Wuhan, China, “wet market” where freshly butchered meat and live wild animals are sold for food and medicine, the virus likely was transmitted in late 2019 via wildlife to humans. And in a matter of months, COVID-19 has felled hundreds of thousands of Homo sapiens, Earth’s preeminent predator.

Writing about this for my new book, I was deeply saddened: The virus has struck people I knew, in Europe and around the world. But this pandemic is a powerful argument for something I believe unequivocally: that biodiversity is necessary for human health, and ultimately, human survival.

PEOPLE HAVE BEEN ACQUIRING harmful viruses and bacteria from contact with animals in the wild for millennia. As humans relentlessly encroach upon wild habitats and compete with animals for water, food, and territory, there’s bound to be more physical contact, yielding more conflict—and more contagion.

A 2020 study explored the link between the abundance of species that carry such zoonotic viruses and the likelihood of spillover to humans. Researchers combed the scientific literature, obtained data on 142 zoonotic viruses, and found that rodents, primates, and bats carried more of these viruses than other species. The researchers also found that the risk of virus transmission to humans was highest from animals that are more abundant because they have adapted to human-dominated environments.

What about risks from the creatures in the ocean, which is more than 70 percent of the planet? Does our exploitation of ocean life also threaten human health? I discovered the answer during our exploration of some of the most remote islands in the central Pacific.

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