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Covid-19 and Biodiversity Conservation – a Northeast India Perspective

Text by Dr. Pranjal Kumar Das

Photo: Udayan Borthakur

Macaque skulls displayed on the wall of a tribal hunter's hut at Arunachal Pradesh

As the world has almost come to a standstill due to COVID-19 pandemic caused by the “severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2” (SARS-CoV-2) and scrambles to restrict its spread, a major concern lies on its impact on course of action to be taken for conservation of worlds biodiversity. It has been suspected that the virus had originated in bats and jumped to the human through an intermediary host, most probably pangolin in a live market of wildlife in China. While this theory still demands scientific verification, as per earlier studies infectious diseases such as severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), swine flu (H1N1), bird flu (H5N1 and H7N9), Ebola, Middle East respiratory syndrome (MARS) etc., seen in the recent human history have all originated from wild animals. Such instances of transmission of zoonotic diseases are primarily due to various human acts leading to coming into close contact with wild animals.

Photo: Udayan Borthakur

Widescale deforestation activities in parts of Assam

The Northeastern region of India is rich in cultural heritage, inhabited by more than 200 indigenous communities. The region is also one of the major biodiversity hotspot in the country. In the context of infectious diseases that has affected mankind in the recent years, the Northeast India could become the next hotspot for emergence of novel zoonotic diseases. The reason being, first, due to various developmental activities, expansion of crop lands and extraction of natural resources, the region has lost vast areas of forest land in past few decades. Second, many indigenous communities of the region rely directly on natural resources to meet their livelihood and wild animals are killed for food as well as traditional medicinal usage. Bush meat trade is still prevalent in many parts of the region and such practices are not regulated by the authorities in the name of allowing traditional practices. Third, illegal hunting of wild animals is prevalent in many parts of the region to meet the demands of the international markets of wild animals in the South and Southeast Asian countries. This brings the people of the region into direct contact of the wild animals, thus, making them at high risk of being exposed to novel infectious diseases of wild animal origin.

Photo: Udayan Borthakur

Traditional hunting practices are still prevalent in most parts of the hill states of Northeast India.

The emergence of Covid-19 has opened the doors of new opportunities to the conservationists of the region, especially, to address the long standing issue of illegal trade of wild animal and their body parts. Apart from stricter vigil to curb the illegal trade, conservation awareness and creating better livelihood opportunities of indigenous communities is the need of the hour. While all forms of illegal wildlife trade as well as recreational hunting practices needs strict action under the purview of the laws of the land, overriding traditional practices and beliefs of indigenous communities on the use of animal parts could be a difficult task, as these root deep into their socio-cultural practices. However, the current situation demands a learning for all and thus the issue of emergence and management of infectious zoonotic disease should be made a part of future conservation efforts through making people aware of the risks involved in coming into direct contact with wild animals and its impact on the society as a whole.

About the Author:

Dr. Pranjal Kumar Das is a wildlife biologist working in Aaranyak as Manager, Wildlife Genetics Division. He did his doctoral research on population genetics of greater one-horned rhinoceros in Eastern India, besides working on several conservation genetics projects undertaken by Aaranyak.

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