World unprepared for coronavirus in wildlife

Tuesday, April 28th, 2020 00:00 |
DR DENNIS BAHATI, programme manager at Africa Network for Animal Welfare, an indigenous Pan-African non-governmental animal welfare organisation.

 DR DENNIS BAHATI, programme manager at  Africa Network for Animal Welfare, an indigenous Pan-African non-governmental animal welfare organisation talks to MILLIAM MURIGI about effects of COVID-19 on animals.


Recently at Bronx Zoo in New York a Malayan Tiger tested positive for Covid-19. Six other wild cats also tested positive at the same facility. What does this mean to our wildlife?

With the vast spread of the disease in humans, the potential for spread in wildlife is impending.

The first reported cases give an indication of how rapid the virus can transmit among wildlife population in captivity and in the wild if the virus were to enter their population.

Imminent interactions among humans, livestock and wildlife will likely result in the transmission of the virus to wildlife if measures are not put in place.

If this worsens and more wild animals are affected, do we have capacity to contain the spread locally and globally? How prepared are we?

Considering this is a novel infection whose epidemiology, pathogenesis, pathology and mode of treatment (since no known human vaccine has been developed to build natural immunity and hence counter the infection) are still a mystery, the situation may prove catastrophic if a vast population of wildlife gets infected.

Scanty research, if any, exists of the same in wildlife and how the virus mutates as it jumps from one wildlife species to another.

With humanity rushing to develop a human vaccine, no effort has been made to develop a similar one for wildlife hence the latter may face greater and far worse consequences both in Kenya and globally.

Containing spread among humans has proven effective through movement restriction.

Achieving the same in wildlife is practically impossible and we may not be in a position to control it. The world is simply unprepared.

What is the future of wild animals post Covid-19?

A positive outcome of this crisis is the ban on wet wildlife markets across China, with placement of strict legislative reforms on animals that can be farmed for meat.

A temporary ban has also been placed on wildlife trade targeting bats, pangolins and civet cats.

With a massive outcry from animal welfare and rights activists both in China and around the world, we may see a complete halt in wildlife poaching, trafficking and consumption.

What is crucial to note is that human-induced activities are the main culprit for the current dispensation.

Massive destruction of wildlife habitats resulting in aggravated human-wildlife conflict has heightened human-wildlife interactions.

This coupled with poaching and bushmeat handling/consumption further propagates the spread of such deadly zoonoses as Covid-19.

What are professionals doing to ensure the spread is not as bad as we are experiencing with humankind?

Social distancing is the best current known remedy even towards safeguarding our wildlife populations in the country.

I am confident Kenya Wildlife Service has already placed such measures to reduce contact with wildlife, especially those in captivity or in orphanages.

Animal handlers should be properly dressed in Personal Protective Equipment and ensure excellent hygiene standards are maintained in the facilities.

Are there possibilities of other wild animals contracting the disease?

Taking into consideration that the infection has been isolated in seven wild cats in a Zoo in New York, and a few dogs and a cat in Hong Kong plus a cat in Belgium, the possibility of the virus to proliferate, mutate and rapidly spread among other animal species is high.

Also, there are little known details about the disease and its implications not only in humans, but also in wildlife.

What needs to be done by government and other actors to ensure Covid-19 does not affect our wildlife?

Instituting a One Health approach Task force by the government is paramount.

There exists a human-animal-environment interface at the centre of the virus’ epidemiology.

Incorporating expertise composed of human doctors, veterinarians, public health officers, environmentalists, epidemiologists, civil society organisations among others is crucial to ensure a concerted effort towards tackling this pandemic.

How should pets be handled during this period?

Pet owners should wash their hands before and after handling pets and their food, practise good pet hygiene and clean up after them.

Social distancing between pets and owners may prove detrimental to pets, resulting in lack of stimulation and subsequent stereotypic behaviour.

Pet owners should wear protective facial masks when in contact with their pets and reduce interaction with other pets that may be carriers of the virus.

They should also consult their veterinarian if their pets show symptoms consistent with Covid -19.

Our parks are still open to the public, does this pose any danger to wildlife?

As a mandatory requirement in all parks in the country, visitors are barred from having any contact with the wildlife, with greater distances encouraged for safety of both.

At the moment, such a measure may prove effective in mitigating the spread of the virus to the animals.

However, strict measures need to be set, especially in animal orphanage sections where wildlife are kept in close proximity with others and probability of interactions with humans heightened.

In the scenario that a bigger majority of our livestock gets infected (especially large herds of livestock kept by majority of the pastoralists in the country), it may pose a serious challenge considering they have close interaction with wildlife in a number of parks and conservancies.

Livestock that pick the infection from humans may transmit the same to wildlife resulting in bigger issues.

What is your take on the future of zoonotic diseases and what should be done to reduce the transmissions?

 Covid-19 has proven the threat zoonotic infections pose to human global health without excluding its detrimental implication to animal life.

We need a universal acceptance that damaging human actions that put pressure on ecosystems and biodiversity could result in sporadic pandemics.

This may eventually result in catastrophic human mortalities, destruction of wildlife habitats through encroachments and development of unsustainable infrastructures need to be halted.

Governments should conceptualise and implement programmes, policies, strict legislative reforms and national action plans to curtail poaching and trade in live wildlife and their products.

Bush meat hunting and consumption should be criminalised in some nations and enforcement reinforced where such practices are illegal.

Concerted public education and awareness of dangers of zoonoses should be a priority with the participation of governments, civil society organisations, private sector and the general public.

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