HUMANS are a forgetful lot. But Covid-19 is teaching us an old lesson we may never forget.
Human health, animal health and forest health are interconnected. Make one ill, the other two will be infected.
Since the advent of humans some 8,000 years ago, the health of forests and animals has been under constant threat.
Sadly, this is a global story. According to Forest Global Watch, the world lost 361 million hectares of forest cover between 2001 and 2018, much of it due to causes set in motion by the mischief of men: forestry, commodity-related deforestation and shifting agriculture.
Two regional culprits stand out: Latin America (92 million hectares) and North America (79 million hectares).
Our region, Southeast Asia, is the fourth biggest loser with 48 million hectares tree cover gone in 18 years.
Malaysia is not out of the woods either. According to the United Kingdom-based think tank Chatham House, Malaysia has been losing a few hundred thousand hectares of forest cover every year between 2001 and 2018, with the lowest being recorded in 2003 at 184,144 hectares (the highest being in 2014, with 646,325 hectares).
In 2018, Malaysia lost 438,371 hectares resulting in carbon dioxide emission of 192 million megatonnes. Our forest governance isn’t much to shout about.
Chatham House thinks we deserve only a “Fair” rating (on a scale of failing, weak, fair, good and very good). Not a surprise, given the scale of illegal logging going on. Despite some proactive steps by the government, in the view of the think tank, four million cubic metres of illegal timber were exported to Japan, India and South Korea in 2014, the latest data available.
Illegal timber means that much less animal habitats.
We shouldn’t be stumped. As Covid-19 is trying so very hard to tell us, coronaviruses are infections that jump from animals to humans when the forests are disturbed.
Zoonoses, which coronaviruses are, can have a devastating effect. Covid-19 began in Wuhan, China, but who knows where it would end. Disturbingly, zoonoses are on the rise.
The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) thinks Covid-19 has a message to humankind, and it is this: address the threats to the ecosystem and wildlife.
Scientists are joining in this chorus of concern saying that degradation of animal habitats, which forests are, causes a rise in zoonotic diseases.
The Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome and Ebola are but examples of recent past.
Doreen Robinson, Chief of Wildlife at the UNEP, puts it thus: “Humans and nature are part of one connected system, and nature provides the food, medicine, water, clean air and many other benefits that have allowed people to thrive.
We need to understand how it works so that we don’t push things too far and face increasingly negative consequences”.
She is right. We need to go back to basics to recognise our limits.
Covid-19 is the latest in a series of reminders to humans of how little we know of ourselves and the world around us.
The learned among us would know where the human world ends and where those of the other life forms begin. Dare we disturb their universe?