A Charles Sturt University wildlife expert said World Wildlife Day (Wednesday 3 March) is an opportunity for us to reconnect to the environment … before it is too late.
By Associate Professor in Wildlife Health and Pathology in the Charles Sturt School of Animal and Veterinary Sciences and Vice President of the International Wildlife Disease Association Dr Andrew Peters.
In Australia, and other highly urbanised countries, most of society has gradually lost a sense of our connection with the environment. We were once well aware that the natural environment ruled our lives and that we were almost entirely dependent on it for our existence. Today, we think of nature in a more abstract and detached way. This is especially true for wildlife.
This World Wildlife Day is an unprecedented opportunity for us to rethink our relationship with wildlife and to reflect on just how deeply our lives are intertwined with the lives of wild animals.
A little over a year ago, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 spilled over from wildlife into people for the first time. On World Wildlife Day last year, the spectre of COVID-19 was rising as the world recorded 3,000 deaths from the virus and Australia’s first community-transmitted cluster was just beginning. More than 2.5 million people have died of COVID-19 since then and we are all witness to the enormous disruption this pandemic has caused to our lives.
Ironically, disruption to the lives of wild animals is the most likely reason that this virus went from wildlife to people. The wildlife trade, farming of wildlife, and changes to wildlife populations through habitat destruction are the front-runner theories for how a virus that was originally found in wild bats ended up infecting possibly other animals and then people. Studies on other viruses like Ebola, SARS and Hendra have shown us how such disruption can cause viruses to overcome natural barriers and infect people.
We know that there are many viruses in wildlife that could infect people, but wild animals are far more than a source of new pandemics.
They pollinate and disperse seeds for trees and other plants, restoring and regenerating the forests we depend on for timber and water. They control agricultural pests, such as mice and insects, and can shape the vegetation of whole landscapes through their behaviour. Wildlife are, for many people, a part of our identity and culture.
Wild animal populations are experiencing significant human-caused disruption. In the last 50 years, more than half of all wild birds, mammals, reptiles and fish are thought to have disappeared.
Many of the threats to wildlife remain, or are accelerating, and it is clear that far greater impacts will occur unless our relationship with wildlife and the environment changes.
The disruption we are causing to the lives of wild animals may eventually cause far greater disruption to our lives than what we have seen in this pandemic. COVID-19 has shown us that our impact on the environment can come full circle to impact us. It doesn’t have to be this way. The small decisions we each make flow on to affect wildlife. This gives us choices that are empowering.
We can all be responsible users of plastics. We can all contribute to revegetation projects. We can all generate less greenhouse gases, use less non-renewable materials in our lives, eat sustainably and buy sustainably. These acts reconnect us with wildlife in a positive way, and that’s something worth celebrating this World Wildlife Day.