Jane Goodall says global disregard for nature brought on coronavirus pandemic


Renowned conservationist and activist Dr Jane Goodall is hoping the coronavirus pandemic will be a wake-up call, warning the crisis is a result of human disregard for nature and animals

By Kirsten Diprose and Matt Neal

Dame Jane Goodall
PHOTO: Dr Goodall says people need to think differently about the environment in order to avoid pandemics. (Australian Story, file photo)

Key points:

  • Dr Jane Goodall, marking 60 years of field research and discovering that chimpanzees make and use tools, says animal habitat loss and intensive farming are part of the viruses jumping species
  • She says as forests disappear, animals come in closer contact with each other and humans
  • Dr Goodall equates the human disregard for nature as also the root cause of climate change

Dr Goodall said we should have known a pandemic-like coronavirus was coming because other viruses, such as SARS and HIV, also jumped the species barrier from animals.

Both SARS and COVID-19 are types of coronavirus and have been traced to live animal markets, or wet markets, in China.

But Dr Goodall said the loss of animal habitats and intensive farming are part of the problem, making it easier for viruses to spread from one animal to another and then to humans.

“We have to learn to think differently about how we interact with the natural world,” she said.

“And one of the problems is that as more and more forests have disappeared, so animals themselves have come in closer contact with each other.

A bat flying mid-air, ready to land on a tree branch.
Various species of bats are reservoirs for viral diseases such as coronaviruses and Hendra.
iStockphoto: CraigRJD

“Most of these viruses that jumped to us have come through an intermediary. So there’s a reservoir host like a bat and in [the case of COVID-19] it’s thought to have jumped into a pangolin and then into us.”

Not just wet markets

Dr Andrew Peters, an associate professor in wildlife health and pathology at Charles Sturt University, backs Dr Goodall’s assertions that human interference with animal habitats is a concern when it comes to diseases.

“There’s going to be intense focus on the wet markets in China as a focus for human spill-over of viruses from wildlife, and that’s rightfully so,”

A photo of a man sitting in front of a microscope.
Dr Peters said.PHOTO: Dr Andrew Peters says human impacts on the natural environment are a factor in viruses crossing from animals to humans. (Supplied: Shane Raidal/Charles Sturt University)

“But the thing we mustn’t lose sight of is there are a whole lot of other things we do in the natural environment that can lead to these kinds of spill-overs occurring.

“In Australia we’ve seen a number of emerging infectious diseases, including Hendra virus, which is obviously a very well known and deadly virus that infects horses and humans from bats.

“The causes of that are thought to be deforestation on the coastal plain of Australia and the pressure that puts on bat populations as they move down to the coast in winter.”

Dr Peters said humans need to reconsider their relationship with the natural world, and the impact we’re having on animals.

“The majority of human new emerging infectious diseases come from wildlife,” he said.

Six decades with the chimps

A baby chimpanzee with its mouth open
PHOTO: A baby chimp born at Monarto Zoo, which was named Hope by Dr Goodall. (Facebook: Monarto Zoo)

Dr Goodall is marking 60 years since she first entered the jungles of Tanzania at the age of 26, to study chimpanzees.

It was her unorthodox approach of immersing herself in their habitat that led to the discovery in 1960 that chimpanzees make and use tools.

The 86-year-old is also concerned the global chimpanzee population could become infected with COVID-19.

Coronavirus questions answered

Coronavirus questions answered
Breaking down the latest news and research to understand how the world is living through an epidemic, this is the ABC’s Coronacast podcast

“The genetic makeup between humans and chimps differ by only just over one per cent,” she said.

“So almost certainly if the infected humans are anywhere near the chimps they are liable to catch it.”

A tiger at the Bronx Zoo in New York reportedly tested positive to COVID-19 earlier this month, suspected to have been infected by a zoo employee.

This is the first known instance of a tiger contracting the new coronavirus.

“We at the Jane Goodall Institute are taking very, very drastic measures to try and protect the chimpanzees in our two sanctuaries in Africa and the wild chimps which is, of course, much harder,” she said.

‘Treating climate change like a pandemic’

Dr Goodall said it is the same disregard shown by humans towards nature that is also the root cause of climate change.

“The way we have treated the planet with our reckless burning of fossil fuel and coal mines — you know all about that in Australia, and how it is heating up the planet,” Dr Goodall said.

“You have certainly suffered from the terrible fires and that’s because the planet is getting hotter and drier, the droughts are getting longer, and it’s all we have done to the natural world.”

Dr Jane Goodall pets a Kangaroo at Perth Zoo.
PHOTO: Primatologist Dr Jane Goodall at the Perth Zoo with one of the locals. (ABC News: Briana Shepherd)

What the experts are saying about coronavirus:

She said the global community should have been treating climate change long ago as if it was a pandemic “because it’s actually far more devastating in terms of loss of life and people being driven from countries simply because the habitat is so inhospitable”.

“So why haven’t we been? Why haven’t we been treating climate change as the disaster it is?” Dr Goodall said.

“You only have to look around at some of the political leaders in different countries to understand why. Because people don’t want to think about making the changes necessary because it would impact their success in business.”

But Dr Goodall said there is reason to hope with the way leaders and communities are working together to fight coronavirus — evidence of what humanity is capable of.

“Maybe it has taken something like this COVID-19 to wake us up and realise you can’t eat money,” she said.

“If we go on destroying nature in this way, go on disrespecting the other beings whom we share this planet, it’s a downward trajectory.

“So hopefully this [coronavirus response], which is affecting the whole world, will give us the jolt we seem to need to start behaving and thinking in a different way”.

A new documentary Jane Goodall: The Hope, based on Dr Goodall’s long career, will be released April 22 by National Geographic to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Earth Day.

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