By Assoc. Prof. Dr. Puan Chong Leong
The world is celebrating the World Environment Day for the 46th time. While this day aims to remind ourselves of the importance of environmental protection, we should reflect on how successful we have been in doing so in the last half a decade.
The COVID-19 virus, which has infected over 6 million people and has taken more than 300,000 lives to date, certainly gives an alarming signal that humans should put more effort in protecting the environment. Serious actions are needed to prevent further outbreaks of zoonotic diseases especially when over 200 diseases (including the SARS, MERS, Nipah viruses) are identified to have originated from wild animals, and up to 70% of the emerging infectious diseases in the past 30 years are known to be of zoonotic origin.
Protecting the natural habitats of wildlife and ending wildlife consumption and trade are the most immediate actions we can take now. These actions reduce close contact between wildlife and humans and hence zoonotic disease transmission.
With the provisional ban on wildlife consumption by China in February 2020 in response to the pandemic, conservationists are urging for a permanent ban on all kinds of wildlife use including for traditional medicines and pets. Other countries should follow suit, or at the least, erect laws that impose strict punishment for wildlife trafficking and consumption.
Southeast Asia is a global hotspot for wildlife poaching, trafficking, and consumption, but effective implementation of existing laws for wildlife protection is confounded and constrained by social, cultural, economic, and political issues.
During this challenging time, we have definitely seen accords of the positive effects of the recent imposing of movement restrictions in many countries – cleaner air and water with wild animals approaching to areas that used to be heavily occupied by people and their activities – which goes to show that the impact humans have on the environment is undeniable and should be moderated more effectively.
Habitat loss, resource overexploitation, invasive species introduction, and pollution are some of the key drivers of global biodiversity loss. The impact of climate change on the environment is also imminent and is affecting many species. We have known these long before now, ever since we first celebrated the World Environment Day in 1974. Nothing is new.
With about 1 million species facing extinction, 13 million tonnes of plastic making its way into the ocean annually and choking the life out of marine organisms, and increasing human-wildlife conflicts, we have to admit that we have not done enough to protect our environment. Humans must really think hard on ways to coexist with wildlife as part of nature.
It is not impossible for people to live harmoniously with wildlife and for natural resources to be used sustainably. Around the world, we have seen successful examples of changing the perception of local communities towards nature, instilling awareness and even turning poachers into nature guides. Everyone can take up a role in creating a better environment.
The theme for this year’s World Environment Day is “Celebrate Biodiversity”. While we celebrate the diverse life forms we have on Earth, I wish we can celebrate our success in protecting our environment and biodiversity in the near future.
Dr Puan Chong Leong is an Associate Professor at the Faculty of Forestry and Environment, Universiti Putra Malaysia. He is also a member of Young Scientists Network, Academy of Sciences Malaysia.
* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Science Media Centre Malaysia
**All previous posts about COVID-19 here: https://sciencemediacentremalaysia.com/tag/covid-19/