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From wildmarkets to landscape degradation: the link between biodiversity and the emergence of new diseases

By Mariana Vidal Merino

Virus outbreaks, transmitted to humans from an animal host are some of the most lethal diseases known (Ahmad 2020). This is believed to be the case of the current Covid-19 pandemic, whose origins have been traced to a wildmarket in Wuhan. Responding to the raise of Covid-19, China enforced a ban on any field-harvested or captive-bred wildlife and many argue this should be an opportunity to permanently ban the commercialization of wildlife for consumption (Yang 2020).

Potential transmission cycles of SARS-CoV2 (formerly 2019nCoV). From Ahmad 2020.

But the commercialization and consumption of wildlife are just part of a bigger problem. Increasing regulations for wildlife markets might be helpful but far not sufficient. The relative contribution of wildlife markets to increasing risk of transmissions from animals to humans is small when compared to land use degradation and deforestation processes.

Livestock and grazing areas©2010CIAT/NeilPalmer

As we continue to clear more forests and destroy ecosystems to establish crops and grazing areas, we are bringing a large number of livestock in close proximity to biodiversity in areas where livestock is not naturally found. And (un)naturally, in the absence of their habitat, wildlife will still try to survive, often leading to new forms of contact with humans. Moreover, by altering communities within ecosystems, making their composition simpler, may result in favoring some species, whose population may increase regardless of whether they have resistance against certain pathogens or not. 

Rather than a plain discourse stating biodiversity as good and low biodiversity as bad, we need to reflect on the consequences of our actions to the ecosystems structure and composition and acknowledge that changes in land use and land degradation processes can have far more reaching consequences than those suspected so far. 

As complex as (forest) ecosystems already are, we will not be able to make robust predictions on how our decisions regarding land use will continue to affect our health, economy, and our environment without looking at the big picture. That is, answering questions like how our consumption habits influence land-use decisions. And the even more challenging question of how ecosystem composition and structure may change as a consequence of changes on climatic conditions. Solutions for such a wicked problem call for experts of different fields, including health, climate change and ecology to work in an integrated manner and to look at ecosystems from a systemic perspective, to look at ourselves as part of that system and to acknowledge that resources within that system are finite.

According to the latest assessment report of the IPCC (AR5), ‘successful adaptation will depend on our ability to allow and facilitate natural systems to adjust to a changing climate, thus maintaining the ecosystem services on which all life depends.

Simple ways to take action 

  • Reconnect with nature, that is the most fundamental connection we have. Nature has not only ecological but a deeper resonance with our inner selves.
  • Diversify your nurturing diet, be aware of what should and should not be on your table.
  • Most wildlife markets are illegal according to the laws of their countries. Do not support the commerce of wildlife products.
  • Maintaining natural systems is the best approach, as the consequences of altering them are difficult to predict.  Support initiatives that protect nature. 


Ahmad, T., Khan, M., Haroon, Musa, T. H., Nasir, S., Hui, J., Bonilla-Aldana, D. K., & Rodriguez-Morales, A. J. (2020). COVID-19: Zoonotic aspects. Travel Medicine and Infectious Disease, 36, 101607–101607. PubMed., N., Liu, P., Li, W., & Zhang, L. (2020). Permanently ban wildlife consumption. Science, 367(6485), 1434.

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