Globally, World Environment Day 2020 arrives at a time of widespread crisis – but also at an opportune time for new understanding. The COVID-19 (Novel Corona) pandemic has brought home to us how interconnected all countries have become, how interdependent we all are, and both how reliant we are on biodiversity and how vulnerable we are to its variations.
There have been previous examples of new diseases making the jump from animals to humans – one thinks, for example, of diseases like bilharzia, Avian flu and Dengue fever. An excellent recent example is ebola, a disease that had first appeared in the late 1970s, probably transmitted to humans through the eating of fruit bats, and which had made sporadic subsequent appearances.
In 2007 a regional agreement was adopted by ten East and West African states – the Gorilla Agreement, under the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals. At the time the agreement was adopted, ebola was becoming a concern with fears that gorillas might become further endangered, or even face extinction, from the disease.
The Parties committed themselves, therefore, to ‘support initiatives to stop the spread of Ebola and other infectious diseases and to find a cure for Ebola’ (Art. III(2)(f)). Gorillas, curiously, seemed then to manage to become immune relatively quickly – although there remain concerns, the species has not been as hard-hit as was initially feared.
In human beings, however, the disease then made a frightening appearance in West Africa in 2014-2015 – possibly now obtained through humans eating gorillas or other primates – and quickly spread to the United States and various Western European countries. The outbreak was relatively quickly contained, but that may have been because of the relative paucity of travel links between West Africa and other parts of the world.
Unfortunately, the world did not learn sufficient lessons from the experience.
From a first case apparently appearing in a person associated with a live-animal market in Wuhan, China, in December 2019, the world is on the brink of its 400,000th death in less than six months. In contrast to the ebola outbreak of 2014-2015, COVID-19 apparently originated in a region with significant global trade and tourism links, and it spread at lightning speed.
The origins of COVID-19 are not yet fully known, but the most likely current cause appears to be interaction between bats, pangolins and humans. In recent years, environmentalists have been warning that overconsumption of pangolins – which are found in Africa and Asia, and are often described as the world’s ‘most trafficked mammal’ – held dangers for pangolins themselves (in 2016 all of the world’s species of pangolins were listed on Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, preventing commercial trade.
As had been the case with the Gorilla Agreement, however, the focus was on the conservation of the animals themselves and not on dangers to human beings. There is, unfortunately, a gap evident between conservation-related and health-related international legal instruments – with treaties concerned with conservation having focused on over-exploitation and other direct impacts on the species themselves.
The staggering global scale of the COVID-19 outbreak, and the rapid speed at which the new disease spread, should provoke a new awareness of the interconnectedness of humans with the natural world.
Whether we will indeed learn from this and begin to accord nature’s powers a new respect, or whether we will move on with a ‘business as usual’ approach (as the world did after the 2014-2015 ebola outbreak), remains to be seen.
What we ought to do on World Environment Day 2020 is reflect on the complexity of nature and seek to redefine our relationship with the natural world in a new spirit of admiration and respect, but past experience shows that we probably will not.
In recent weeks, while many people in major cities worldwide have been locked down, there have been many wonderful examples of wild animals making incursions into areas where they had not been seen for years – hopefully we will embrace and encourage this in the future, with a stronger appreciation for how little we truly understand about nature and a greater appreciation for nature’s incredible power!
Professor Rosemary Lyster and Associate Professor Ed Couzens are Environmental Lawyers, and Co-Directors of the Australian Centre for Climate and Environmental Law at The University of Sydney Law School.