Bengaluru: Prof. A. Damodaran, from the Economics and Social Sciences area at IIMB, presided over a virtual round table on ‘A Bioconservation Agenda to Avoid Zoonotic Pandemics of the Future’ on 29th July, 2020.
The panel featured eminent speakers from India and abroad, including Kenneth Petersen, Sr Vice President, OSI Group, LLC; Jamison Ervin, Manager, Nature for Development Program – UNDP, New York; Jigmet Thakpa, Joint Secretary, Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change, Govt. of India; Craig Hoover, Executive Vice President, Association of Zoos and Aquariums, Washington DC; Dr Rajesh Gopal, Secretary General, Global Tiger Forum; Dr Claude Garcia, Sr Scientist, CIRAD, Montpellier, France; Ridhima Solanki, Wildlife Researcher, India; and Mohnish Kapoor, Global Tiger Forum.
In his opening remarks, Prof. Damodaran described the context of the round table as “unusual” because five months into COVID-19, the focus of the world remains fixed on epidemiology and immunology. “What we don’t talk about much in the mainstream media is why COVID-19 happened. While conversations on the fringes have been about the role of conservation and the pandemic, this round table should bring such conversations, about the ‘why’ of COVID-19, to the mainstream,” he observed.
Conservationists like Jamison Ervin, Dr Claude Garcia, Dr Rajesh Gopal, Mohnish Kapoor, Craig Hoover, Riddhima Solanki, policymakers like Jigmet Thakpa and a food safety expert like Kenneth Petersen, who were on the panel, examined the role of science and society in understanding zoonotic pandemics.
Jigmet Thakpa, who has played a key role in saving the snow leopards of Ladakh, responding to the question ‘are we surprised that a pandemic like COVID-19 happened considering the state of bioconservation in the world’, said while everyone were aware, they chose to ignore the threat. “As selfish human beings, we had no idea Nature would hit back and change the world. Exploiting and plundering natural resources, we have reached the state where we have come to eat anything that moves and thereby we have jumped into a sea of pathogens – viruses and bacteria – that can mutate and create havoc on our immune system.” Alleging that some rich use exotic animals for food and medicine, he said “Nature has warned us to mend our ways. We must heed this message and learn to live with Nature in harmony.”
Claude Garcia, who has done extensive field work in India, said Ebola and SARS had given us an inkling of what was coming. “We only didn’t know from where it would come from.” He said what surprised him was the way the world responded to the pandemic. “This is the first time that humanity went into lockdown in a relatively short time.”
Dr. Rajesh Gopal, former chief conservator of Kanha Tiger Reserve and current Secretary-General of Global Tiger Forum, remarked that what surprised him was certainly not the outbreak of the corona virus, but the lack of will among governments across the world to seriously address issues of climate change and conservation. “Unless the centrality of green spaces is enshrined, this won’t stop. Where is GDP now? We are struggling for survival.”
Jamison Ervin said while zoonotic pandemics are rare and unpredictable, we are not uninformed. “We know that habitat destruction increases our risk but we – as individuals, as communities, as governments – are not prepared to change the conditions that make the next pandemic inevitable,” she said.
Riddhima Solanki, a field ecologist, drew from her research background to argue that any policy needs strong baseline data, globally. “Research is important to develop policies and suggest mitigation measures to governments.”
State of food safety
Given the state of food safety associated with wet markets, Kenneth Petersen who responded to the question whether regulations can be put in place, first explained that the COVID-19 virus is not known to be transmitted through food or food packaging. “While it readily transmits from person to person, it isn’t difficult to kill in the environment unlike the hepatitis one. So, food safety standards organizations do not have much of a role to play in this pandemic.”
He went on to say that protocols cannot be easily and quickly put in place by organizations like Codex for COVID-19 as there is a price component to it.
Refusing to judge the cultural context of wet markets in South Asia, he said: “Surveillance or some sort of cultural change in terms of food safety should be the key.”
Green circular economies
One of the participants, who observed that there are a number of efforts into developing circular economies, wanted to know viable they are.
Responding, Jamison Ervin explained: “Green, circular, inclusive economies can certainly be viable – in certain circumstances. One challenge, however, is that they are operating within an unsustainable business-as-usual status quo environment that finances the destruction of nature more than 100 times more than it finances nature protection. A status quo that spends 5.3 trillion every year on fossil fuel subsidies. A status quo that produces hundreds of millions of tons of single-use plastic because it’s “cheaper” than alternatives. A status quo in which clearing 100,000 hectares of primary forest and putting 100,000 cattle for beef is “profitable”. So until we transform our finance system entirely, alternative economic solutions like green, circular economies, may face an uphill battle.”
CITES & its role
Craig Hoover, who said one of his fondest conservation memories is of spending a week looking for tigers in Corbett National Park in the state of Uttarakhand, explained the key features of the CITES agreement and its impact on wildlife trade. CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) is an international agreement between governments. “CITES should be amended and its scope expanded. COVID-19 should be the wake-up call to create a new international regulatory regime,” Craig added.
Dr Rajesh Gopal argued that compliance within societies is also key to the success of agreements like CITES.
Convention on Biodiversity & COVID-19 response strategies
Jamison Ervin said the disruption caused by COVID-19 has made conservationists reconsider the CBD’s frameworks. “We need to mobilize much more radical efforts. We need a one-health approach that will raise planetary health. We need to be more nuanced in our thinking and sensitive to ecological tipping points like the collapse of the Great Barrier Reef. The CBD goals and targets are rooted in outdated frameworks. COVID-19 has shown us that our future is not secured. We must use this as an opportunity to better protect ourselves and develop sustainable economic models.”
Prof. Damodaran said that unless we are willing to take a hard look at our relationship with the planet, we are in for a difficult future. “The biggest challenge for CITES and CBD is to see whether they can look at their structure to include human life and safety,” he added.
Jigmet Thakpa said global, regional and local wildlife trade regulations need to be strengthened and strictly implemented and every species codified. “As a forester, I believe all wildlife trade must be banned. I know this is an extreme view but I cannot understand how wildlife trade can ever be sustainable! Conviction rate for illegal trade is very low. In India, it is less than 5 per cent. The punishment for poaching is Rs 25,000 and 5 years in prison. This has to be made more stringent. We need a dedicated court for illegal wildlife trade with speedy trials and high conviction rates.”
While Craig Hoover agreed that international laws on poaching and trafficking need to be strengthened, he argued that we cannot regulate our way out of crisis. “We need to address all aspects of the trade chain – educating consumers, providing alternative livelihoods, etc.”
Mohnish Kapoor, from Global Tiger Forum, said poaching continues to rise in South East Asia and hoped for harmonization between local and international laws and strengthening of enforcement. “COVID-19 has given us the opportunity to ensure that zoonotic pandemics do not repeat by eliminating wildlife crime with political will at the highest level.”
Role of technology
Riddhima Solanki said real-time proactive surveillance, using smart tools, can help. “Forests departments everywhere are fighting lone battles. They need technology support and capacity building.”
Claude Garcia said the problem with the pandemic is with decision-making of governments. “Culture, demography, governance, technology are drivers of decision-making. The next big game changer is going to be our decision making – alone or with AI.”
The round table saw close to 130 participants.