World Environment Day, 5 June 2020

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The theme for this year’s global environment day is biodiversity, meaning the components of the natural world that work together to constitute the living planet. The number and variety of species in the world is astonishingly huge, with only a fraction of the species known and described. The rate of extinction of species is a cause for concern, particularly as the major reason for extinctions is the superabundance of human beings.

Now, at this time of the pandemic of COVID-19, it may not be very fashionable to campaign for the conservation of a virus that is causing so much misery and disruption to the human population. But biodiversity in its broadest sense includes viruses, bacteria, fungi, arthropods and other forms of life that can cause harm to other living organisms. The very core of biodiversity is that every conceivable lifestyle will be exploited by organisms of different kinds in order to survive and replicate themselves. So, we have parasites, predators and prey making up the web of life that we call biodiversity.

Humans have learnt to cultivate and farm a variety of plants and animals to provide a reliable source of food. But many humans still depend on foraging for wild plants and hunting of animals for their daily sustenance, and many such people live in Africa. As more and more humans migrate to the cities of the continent, seeking better lives and the benefits of modern civilisation, they also retain their taste for bushmeat, and commercial trade in wild plants and animals thrives in the urban centres of the world. Here the concentration of humans makes the rapid spread of harmful organisms such as viruses that much easier. There is strong evidence that the COVID-19 virus originated from bats in China.

Various epidemics or pandemics have afflicted humans for a long time. More than 100 years ago the Spanish Flu spread around the world after World War I ended in 1918. My own grandfather was one of its victims. And who can forget the poliomyelitis epidemics of the 1940s, that killed many and left many others crippled for life? The South African Poliomyelitis Research Foundation was established in Johannesburg with funds raised largely from the public. In parallel with efforts in the United States of America, a vaccine was achieved simultaneously in both countries in 1955, and a mass global immunisation campaign has seen the disease disappear from most of the world.

Hopefully the COVID-19 virus will likewise be conquered in time by the development of a vaccine. It is rather ironic that modern medicine has been able to extend and prolong life for many people suffering from various ailments, but this older group of humans seems particularly susceptible to the ‘new’ Coronavirus.

With travel, tourism and hunting at a complete standstill, we can but fervently hope that the success story around the polio vaccine some 70 years ago will soon be repeated. And perhaps on World Environment Day, we also need to recognise that not all the wondrous expressions of biodiversity out there are good for us!

Dr John Ledger is a past Director of the Endangered Wildlife Trust, a consultant and academic on energy and the environment, and a columnist for the African Hunting Gazette. John.Ledger@wol.co.za