What are the effects of wildlife extinction

Wild animals are also suffering from the consequences of the corona pandemic

I started because I wanted to tell how beautiful the world is. And now I feel like a war correspondent, "said" Terra X "moderator Dirk Steffens. An impression that is confirmed by the findings of science: The World Biodiversity Council (IPBS) warned in 2019 that a million animal and Plant species could become extinct - around half of all living things known to date, with the exception of single-cell microorganisms.

The Global Biodiversity Outlook 5, published a few weeks ago, also comes to the conclusion that the global community is failing to achieve its goals of conserving biological diversity.

Nevertheless, compared to the climate crisis, the topic is little present in public and in politics and, according to experts, is perceived as less threatening. A little like the motto: If gorillas and polar bears become extinct, it is very sad, but it does not fundamentally change life on the planet.

Especially not when - supposedly - inconspicuous species such as partridge, green toad or bear moth disappear. And who cares about the loss of the scarlet adonis or the little-flowered rockcress?

150 species per day

Biologists and conservationists, on the other hand, have been sounding the alarm for years: biodiversity, the wealth of all life, is eroding at an unprecedented rate. An estimated 150 species die out every day. Every species, created in an evolutionary process that has lasted millions of years, is then irretrievably lost.

In the past two decades alone, a third of the primeval forests have been cut down, the number of birds in Europe has halved since 1980, and insect numbers are falling worldwide. In sum, the loss of species also threatens our livelihoods.

Destroyed habitats

The causes of the great deaths are well known: 7.8 billion people need space, raw materials and food. The consequences are destroyed habitats, excessive land use, overfishing and environmental pollution. Then there are invasive species and the climate crisis.

Politicians seem to have recognized the dimension of the biodiversity crisis. Ten years ago, at the UN conference in Nagoya, 190 countries set themselves 20 goals by 2020. Among other things, the loss of natural habitats and the decline of species should be limited.

But there is obviously a lack of will to implement the goals. Because the Global Biodiversity Outlook 5 shows that none of these goals have been achieved and only little progress has been made, for example in the designation of protected areas and the expenditures for nature conservation.

Subsidies for environmentally harmful behavior

"Fortunately, global spending on nature conservation has doubled in the past ten years. But the around 80 billion dollars are a piece of cake compared to the huge sums of subsidies that reward environmentally harmful behavior such as overfertilization or overfishing," says Anne, head of the World Biodiversity Council Larigauderie in the weekly magazine "Spiegel".

"Although we owe the climate, drinking water, food and medicine to nature, protecting it is still not as important as it should be," says biologist Martin Schaefer, who broke off his scientific career to devote himself entirely to preserving biodiversity can.

Schaefer is now the managing director of Fundación Jocotoco, a nature conservation foundation in Ecuador that was founded in 1998 and buys rainforests in order to protect the country's unique biodiversity.

Ecuador, around three times the size of Austria, is considered the most biodiverse country on the planet due to its topography - the Galapagos Islands in the west, the Andes with the 6,263 meter high Chimborazo in the east. There are around 1,600 species of birds there. For comparison, Austria has around 300 species that appear regularly.

On shaky legs

As if nature conservation hadn't already had it difficult enough, the corona crisis is adding to this and exposing another weak point: Species protection is largely dependent on financially strong ecotourism and is therefore on shaky feet.

"About 25 percent of our income comes from ecotourism. Since the season was good until February, we still have reserves, but things look bleak for the next year," says Schaefer. Ecuador was brutally hit by the pandemic, and the lockdown was much harder than in Austria.

The airport in Quito reopened in June, but it is unclear when large numbers of tourists will venture into the country again. "The Ecuadorian Environment Ministry recently laid off 360 employees.

This will not remain without consequences for the monitoring of the national national parks, "said Schaefer, who reported an increase in poaching and illegal logging in various regions and has already restructured internally: administrative employees have been laid off, additional park rangers have been hired and converted mobile phones have been installed in the treetops that broadcast shots and chainsaw noises in real time, helping to protect the Foundation's 16 reserves.

Exploiting resources

Schaefer fears that the problem could worsen: "In a bad economic situation, developing countries will have to exploit their natural resources even more in order to cope with the consequences of the corona crisis. Ecuador, for example, is rich in natural resources such as gold, silver and copper - which is closer than extending the mining concessions? "

The biologist and his team are all the more committed to the Save the Chocó campaign - the purchase of 57,000 hectares of pristine rainforest on the western slopes of the Andes. "The area is spectacularly biodiverse. If we manage to raise the money, we can connect several of our reserves and create a large contiguous protected area that extends from the sea to over 5,000 meters in the mountains," enthuses Schaefer.

The collapse of ecotourism affects all those countries that can offer large and largely untouched natural areas, including Africa. An unusual hunt took place there in June, more precisely in the north-west of South Africa. For nine days, with the help of conservationists, employees of the national park authority located all the rhinos in three protected areas, several dozen animals, sedated them and sawed off their horns. The drastic and in this scope unique action is intended to protect the animals from poachers.

"It was a historic conservation measure," says Lynne MacTavish, manager of the adjacent Mankwe Wildlife Reserve. "Dehorning is controversial, but it has been shown to be the only method that makes a meaningful difference."

Merciless poaching

The fact that rhinos are poached is nothing new. In the past ten years, South Africa in particular has been the scene of merciless and extremely efficiently organized poaching: over 8,000 animals lost their lives. Poachers cut the horn so deep out of their meat that they usually bleed to death. Rhinoceros powder is considered a medicine in Vietnam and China, one kilogram of horn is worth around 55,000 euros.

Recently, rhino poaching in southern Africa has declined somewhat, but conservationists are now concerned that it could flare up again due to the consequences of the pandemic: Shortly after the lockdown in South Africa at the end of March, at least nine animals were killed. Shortly after the border was closed, at least six black rhinos were poached in neighboring Botswana. With only around 5500 individuals left, the species is threatened with extinction, which is why some animals from the Okavango Delta have been evacuated to a secret location in Botswana.

Protective measures such as dehorning or anti-poaching patrols cost money. Much of this comes from ecotourism, which came to a standstill across the continent at the end of March due to international travel restrictions. "90 percent of our guests come from abroad. We have survived the last few months with donations, but I'm not sure how long we can rely on them," says MacTavish.

Protection through the presence of tourists

According to the World Travel and Tourism Council, the travel industry in Africa generates revenues of around 63 billion euros. In South Africa in 2018, no less than 84 percent of the funding for SAN parks, the South African national park authority, came from tourism-related sources such as park entrance fees and game drives.

"The vast majority of parks and reserves in Africa are financed almost entirely by tourism," explains Tim Davenport, who heads the wildlife conservation programs for Africa at the Wildlife Conservation Society. "Without the income, operating budgets had to be cut and law enforcement measures reduced."

In the safari destinations, tourists are not only absent because of their money: "The animals are not only protected by wildlife rangers, but also by the presence of tourists. If they are absent, the risk for poachers is reduced," says Davenport. Places like the Okavango Delta or the Kruger National Park have the "big five" - ​​lions, leopards, rhinos, elephants and buffalo - and are usually teeming with tourists.

Susceptible to infection

The protected areas in central Africa, which are home to the last chimpanzee and gorilla populations, have an additional problem. Great apes are genetically very similar to humans, which makes the animals correspondingly susceptible to infections with human pathogens.

"Studies have shown that humans and great apes have similar ACE2 protein receptors to which Sars-CoV-2 binds," explains Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka from Entebbe, Uganda. In 2003, the veterinarian founded the non-profit organization Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH) with the aim of preserving diversity by improving the livelihood of people in and around the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, the habitat of 459 mountain gorillas.

Primate tourism has been suspended for months in order to protect the small and therefore very susceptible great ape populations from infection with the coronavirus. But this approach also harbors dangers: Game rangers visit the mountain gorillas daily and patrol the protected areas.

Unemployment and poaching

Nevertheless, on June 1, the lead gorilla of the Nkuringo gorilla group, Rafiki, was found dead: poachers who had set traps to catch bush pigs and duikers stabbed the silverback. "The communities around the protected areas in Uganda are among the poorest. Since the end of tourism, many people have been unemployed, and poverty and hunger drive them to poach, which puts mountain gorillas and chimpanzees at high risk of injury and infection," explains Kalema- Zikusok.

According to the Uganda Tourist Office, 500,000 tourism jobs had been lost by July. This does not include people who sell handicrafts to tourists, work as porters, or sell fruit and vegetables to hotels. At the moment, CTPH is handing out "Ready to grow" packages with crops such as potatoes, corn, cabbage and beans.

More independent from tourism

Basically, the organization tries to win community members for its own company Gorilla Conservation Coffee in order to make them more independent from tourism: "We buy their coffee from the farmers at a price above the market price. And for every kilo of coffee sold, 1.30 euros are paid back to the nature conservation and health projects of CTPH ", explains Kalema-Zikusok.

The vet leaves open the question of how long the great apes can be effectively protected without income from tourism. But there is also positive news to report in the midst of the crisis: seven gorilla babies have been born since January. For comparison: in 2019 there were three.

Some African countries are now reopening their borders to foreign tourists. Since October 1st, tourists from selected countries have been allowed to return to South Africa. Botswana's and Uganda's borders will remain closed for the time being. Many people hope that the border will open before Christmas, when the main season starts.

Bushmeat poaching

The same applies to Southeast Asia. The pandemic has also led to a huge loss of income in tourism there, and the consequences cannot yet be foreseen. "Poaching is definitely on the rise, not just in Malaysia, it is a global problem," says Marc Ancrenaz, veterinarian and co-founder of the Hutan species protection organization.

A clear distinction must be made between organized and bushmeat poaching. The former is targeting ivory or rhinoceros, according to a recent report by the Wildlife Justice Commission, although it was hindered by the lockdown measures, it never really came to a standstill.

The increasing bushmeat poaching is a clear consequence of the pandemic: In countries without a safety net, the poor are left with the forest or the sea to feed their families and children.

If tourism does not recover quickly, Ancrenaz sees further problems for species protection, especially at the edges of protected areas: Due to the extensive deforestation of the forests on Borneo - in 30 years 16.8 million hectares have been cleared, an area almost half the size Germany - the endangered orangutans and dwarf elephants inevitably increasingly move to agricultural areas and like to plunder the crops. "Coexistence with wild animals is not always harmonious. If there are no tourists, the income that people tolerate wild animals is missing."

Serious consequences from the corona pandemic

In Africa in particular, such conflicts can end fatally. There are more elephants in northern Botswana than anywhere else. Protective measures such as a hunting ban and a "shoot-to-kill" policy to deter poachers have led to an increase in populations. Around 16,000 people live in the region, sharing the labyrinth of watercourses, mopane forests and grasslands with around 18,000 elephants.

During the harvest season, between April and June, the elephants move south into the delta. They follow well-tried hiking routes that lead them past settlements and fields that they plunder and trample over and over again. Some communities now regard elephants as pests, drive them away and injure them - and the animals sometimes attack people too.

To what extent the corona crisis will affect species protection cannot be estimated at the moment. However, the pandemic clearly shows how massively species protection depends on tourism and what serious consequences this has for wild animals and people. "Tourism must remain a source of support for conservation," says Ancrenaz, "but not the only justification for conserving biodiversity."

The pandemic itself offers a strong argument for a financially sound anchored protection of biodiversity. Numerous studies show a connection between the development of zoonoses and land use changes by humans. Deforestation, road construction, agriculture, animal husbandry and the trade in wild animals leave their mark: Species are disappearing, diversity is decreasing, species communities are changing. What is often dismissed as a purely environmental issue is actually also a huge global health problem.

Virus coexistence

Because wherever humans change land use, species suddenly come into contact with one another that would never have met under natural conditions. "All animals, including humans, coexist peacefully with a whole range of viruses and other pathogens to which they have adapted in the course of their evolution," says Simone Sommer, evolutionary biologist at the University of Ulm, who investigates the mechanisms of the development of zoonoses investigated the tropics. An environment that is disturbed by humans opens up new transmission possibilities for viruses and other pathogens.

A well-documented example is the Nipah virus. It appeared for the first time in Malaysia in 1998 and was created through the intensification of pig farming in an area rich in bats. The pigs ate fruit residues that were lying on the floor and were contaminated with bat saliva and developed meningitis.

Increased risk through contact with wild animals

People became infected through the pigs, 105 people died. There have been a number of outbreaks in Southeast Asia since then. "More contact means a higher risk that pathogens will spread from wild animals to farm animals or humans", says the Viennese wildlife doctor Christian Walzer, head of the health department at the Wildlife Conservation Society and scientist at the Vet-Med University of Vienna, "and if so if we do not change anything, virus transmissions will return. "

Experts agree: Instead of softening environmental regulations because of the impending economic pandemic, the global community should rethink and make the protection and expansion of the remaining intact ecosystems a top priority - for their own protection and that of gorillas, partridges and adonis. Because every species is a legacy that should be preserved for future generations. (Juliette Irmer, October 21, 2020)

What are zoonoses?

Zoonoses are infectious diseases that are transmitted naturally between animals and humans. Both the transmission routes and the pathogens are diverse. Accordingly, the diseases can be caused by viruses and bacteria, but also by worms, ticks or mosquitoes. For example, from a dog or tick bite, a mosquito bite, cleaning animal stalls or cages or dealing with domestic or wild animals. Infections often also occur through the consumption of contaminated food such as raw milk or meat.

Up to 75 percent of newly emerging infectious diseases are zoonoses. The best known include bird and swine flu, rabies, borreliosis, salmonellosis, but also malaria. The origin of Sars-CoV-2 is also believed to be in wild animals. It has now been proven that pets such as cats and dogs can be infected by humans.

So far, however, no animal has been proven to have died of Covid-19, and there is nothing to suggest that pets could play a role in the spread of the current virus. (Juliette Irmer, 9.1.2021)

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This text was published in the current STANDARD science magazine FORSCHUNG. The magazine is available in the STANDARD online shop for € 5.90.