By the One Health Team, Wildlife Conservation Trust, Mumbai
More than halfway through 2020, the world continues to find itself in the middle of a pandemic of an unprecedented magnitude. Initially reported in Wuhan, China, as pneumonia of unknown cause, COVID-19 has metamorphosed into a global pandemic. Thus far, over 15 million people have been affected and over half a million deaths across 215 countries and territories have been reported. The disease is caused by a newly-identified coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2), which some believe may have originated from animals such as bats, and entered humans from secondary hosts such as pangolins.
Speculations about animal origins, and ‘spillover’ of the disease to humans at ‘wet markets’ in Huanan, China, are probably the least ‘novel’ aspects of COVID-19. The majority of newly emerging or re-emerging diseases have originated in animals. Diseases like Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), Ebola, H1N1 (swine flu) and HIV are among prime global examples. The Kyasanur forest disease (monkey fever) in southwestern India is a terrifying example closer to home. Multiple factors including climate change, increased human encroachment, destruction of wildlife habitats, and the illegal wildlife trade have been responsible for the spillovers. Yet the growing demand for wildlife as pets, or food, or for dubious medicinal purposes remains unabated. It is this increased contact between humans and animals that has created favourable conditions for spillover of viral diseases. Globally connected markets and faster modes of transport have made it easier for diseases to spread quickly over large distances.
Wet markets have been held responsible for a number of diseases such as H1N1, Avian (bird) flu, SARS and COVID-19; all linked to animal hosts. Yet, limited and wholly inadequate regulatory actions have been taken to mitigate risks from zoonoses. Diseases like SARS and MERS triggered discussions about the interconnectedness between the health of humans, animals and the environment; but these never achieved the reach and threat persistence over a prolonged period as COVID-19. The current pandemic may just tip the scales in favour of seriously addressing zoonotic diseases systematically and holistically, as envisioned in the One Health concept. If we fail, future pandemics are inevitable.
A wildlife market in Myanmar. Photo: Dan Bennett.
The potential origin of COVID-19 from wild species forms the basis of the One Health paradigm, linking human health, animal health (predominantly livestock) and the environment. The concept is not new and has been well established in the fields of veterinary and human medicine by those working in disease surveillance and food security. But it has remained a niche area, overlooked by mainstream medical and conservation researchers. COVID-19 has catapulted ‘One Health’ onto centre stage, as virtually every aspect of our lives has been impacted by the pandemic. It could be argued that the One Health approach is an essential component of modern wildlife conservation and environmental protection.
Much of the illegal wildlife trade fuels the Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) industry in the Far East. A part of that journey involves trafficked wildlife species that end up in ‘wet markets’ and the exotic animal trade. These environments, where animals are kept in squalid, unsanitary conditions, provide a perfect storm for viral spread.
Although there is little evidence for the effectiveness of TCM, the World Health Organisation (WHO) actually included a chapter on it in the 11th revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) in May 2019. We don’t know if this led to increased demand for wildlife products, but it did add credibility to the practice of TCM. Dubious products such as bear bile, tiger bone wine, and powdered rhino horn are used by TCM to ‘cure’ a number of ailments including COVID-19! While some of these products come from captive-bred animals, many are trafficked from the wild to meet the needs of captive breeding. Others are sold illegally at high prices in wet markets. It is here in these ‘melting pots’ that viruses cross over from animal hosts to humans in ‘viral spillovers’.
Traditionally, wildlife conservation has remained focused on the welfare of iconic species such as the tiger and rhino in Asia. The One Health lens looks at the impact of conservation by tackling the illegal wildlife trade to protect human health and prevent future pandemics.
‘Wet markets’, where animals are kept in squalid, unsanitary conditions, provide a perfect storm for viral spread. Photo: Dan Bennett.
Anthropogenic change in land use such as unsustainable agriculture, grazing, construction of linear infrastructure, logging, mining, hunting, and gathering forest produce leads to deforestation. The fragmentation of habitats increases the interface between humans, livestock, and wildlife. Emerging infectious diseases in wildlife and livestock often go unnoticed until they pose a direct threat to human health. COVID-19 and Ebola outbreaks are classic examples of why early warning systems and interdisciplinary collaborations are imperative to achieve human health, food security, and wildlife conservation goals.
In Central India, tiger reserve buffer zones are hotbeds of interactions between humans, livestock, and wildlife. For example, more than 40,000 humans with approximately a lakh head of livestock live in around 160 villages spread across 1,600 sq. km. of the Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh, which is home to more than 100 tigers and thousands of herbivores, plus 40 or so elephants.
All these species compete for resources – land, pastures, and perennial water – which in turn creates many interfaces for potential disease transmission.
Infectious diseases have played an important role in population declines and the extinction of wild populations of endangered species across the planet. They continue to threaten many more. The Department of Animal Husbandry is responsible for the overall health of livestock and disease surveillance of the region. However, high livestock population, remoteness of location, poor health awareness, and shortage of resources are major challenges. Limitation in access to veterinary care in rural regions could impact the prompt identification of diseases, such as foot and mouth (FMD) and canine distemper that are known to jump from livestock to wildlife.
A field assistant vaccinates cattle for foot and mouth disease in a village in the buffer zone of the Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve. Photo: WCT.
The risk of transmission of COVID-19 in rural areas has increased drastically owing to the reverse migration of people from urban areas to villages. Not surprisingly, the number of COVIDpositive cases reported from these areas has been increasing. Of the estimated 7,10,000 government hospital beds available, only 2,60,000 (37 per cent) beds are available in rural areas. This amounts to around one bed per 3,100 people in India. Also, one allopathic doctor is accessible to 26,000 people in rural areas compared to the national average of one per 10,000 people. Our frontline forest staff, and their families, live within these rural communities in and around forests. The forest staff play a vital role in management of the wildlife human- environment interface and the prevention of poaching and trafficking of wildlife. Their health needs to be prioritised, especially during such disease outbreaks. Current work by the authors looking at the location of public health facilities around six tiger reserves and two wildlife sanctuaries in Maharashtra revealed that rural communities including forest staff must travel an average of 65 km. (two hours by vehicle) from the park gate to the district headquarters in case of a medical emergency such as a serious injury or illness. Our data highlights the challenges faced by the forest staff in accessing healthcare.
Tourism generates crucial revenue, which is reinvested into protection activities. During the COVID-19 lockdown, Protected Areas (PAs) have faced indefinite closure of tourism operations, but protection activities have to continue, more so because unemployment has raised human dependence on forests. Consequently, the threat from poaching and encroachment has increased considerably.
The recent easing of restrictions in some states has reopened parks for tourists. However, the advent of monsoon coupled with social distancing norms will continue to impact the influx of visitors, and not all guides and drivers will find employment. It will be challenging for the Forest Department to limit the adverse impact of the pandemic on the overall health of the ecosystem.
Forest staff at the Pench Tiger Reserve, Madhya Pradesh, undergo a preventive health check assessing their exposure to non-communicable disease risks. Conducted in December 2018, the health checks benefited 91 forest staff from the reserve. Photo: Sanjay Thakur/WCT.
Reports suggest a significant reduction in air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions during the lockdown, attributable to reduced industrial, transportation and human activities. But these environmental benefits are likely to be short-lived. Governments across the globe have started to reopen businesses to boost economies, many pushing to weaken existing environmental regulations in an artless attempt to revitalise economies. To sustain the positive environmental impacts of the lockdown in the long run, now is when we must prioritise measures to mitigate environmental damage.
Acknowledging the interconnectedness between human health, animal health, and the environment, it is only logical to promote collaborative efforts between these sectors to achieve their respective goals. Focusing on the conservation workforce, WCT aims to build capacities in the health sector, impacting the frontline forest staff. For them, we earlier introduced preventive health-checks that identified significant exposure to risk factors of non-communicable diseases, such as diabetes, hypertension, and cardiovascular diseases. We have also assessed forest staff exposure to health emergencies, and delivered bespoke training for their management in remote field settings to over 1,300 frontline forest staff in 18 PAs across Central India. We are currently in the process of mapping the public health facilities around PAs in Central India to assess forest staff access to healthcare and emergency preparedness for future pandemics. This exercise will also benefit a wider population of people living in and around PAs by nudging policy changes for improved access to affordable healthcare services.
What is vitally important is to identify and study human-livestock wildlife interfaces and interactions. For now, our objective is to create a sustainable early warning system to detect outbreaks that may affect conservation of wildlife. Towards this end, over two years, WCT has conducted a detailed FMD prevalence study on livestock at the Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve in collaboration with the Madhya Pradesh Forest Department, the Animal Husbandry department, and local communities. Additionally, we are currently collecting data on the spatial movement of grazing livestock to forewarn stakeholders on the frequency and intensity of interactions of domestic animals with wildlife to address future epidemic outbreaks at the wildlife-livestock interface.
Forest staff participate in a simulated safe extrication of an accident victim during a trauma management training session at the Gir National Park, Gujarat. The training programme, held in November-December 2019, benefited 90 frontline staff from the park. Photo: Pooja Shinde/WCT.
There is no dispute regarding the role of both terrestrial and marine ecosystems in maintaining climate stability just as there is no disputing the role of a healthy lifestyle in prolonging human life. For several decades, species conservation has focused on securing habitats without much emphasis on tackling externalities. The unprecedented dip in vulture populations belonging to the genus Gyps from as many as 40 million strong to 30,000 in less than a decade because of the usage of an analgesic drug administered in domestic livestock; the rising respiratory health hazard in India’s capital, New Delhi, due to falling air quality, largely brought about by burning of agriculture waste in neighbouring states of Haryana and Uttar Pradesh; the sudden death of over 30 Asiatic lions, one of the most endangered large carnivores on Earth, presumably due to the transmission of canine distemper virus (CDV) from domestic dogs and now, the psychologically and economically devastating impact of COVID-19, which has clear linkages with the wet markets in China – it is becoming exceedingly obvious that the health of an individual animal/plant or a group of individuals of one species or an entire population of a species or populations of several species and the habitat where these species are found or the security of neighbouring habitats or the stability of climate and the social/environmental/ economic stability of humans – are all interlinked in more ways than previously thought. There is no option but to have a holistic approach in addressing issues pertaining to the overall health of the planet.
The One Health concept, simply put, is all about internalising externalities while trying to solve a human-related, a wildlife-related or a habitat-related problem. The coming half a decade is extremely crucial in bringing about this paradigm shift if we are to even have an outside chance of addressing the micro, while keeping an eagle eye on the macro issues. The One Health concept is an opportunity to unite the world for a common agenda – to safeguard the health of our planet without discriminating between species or borders.