Article image

Protecting tropical peatlands could prevent future pandemics

In a new study led by the University of Exeter, researchers describe how the conservation of tropical peatlands could reduce the likelihood of future pandemics.

The experts found that the combination of habitat loss, wildlife harvesting, and the high levels of biodiversity found in peat-swamp forests can create “suitable conditions” for deadly diseases to jump from animals to humans.

The specific strain of the HIV virus that causes AIDS originated in a tropical area with extensive peatlands in the Democratic Republic of Congo. This was also the site of the first Ebola outbreak in 1976, which emerged in a community near to Ebola River.

Study lead author Dr. Mark Harrison is an expert at the Centre for Ecology and Conservation on Exeter’s Penryn Campus and at the Borneo Nature Foundation International.

“We’re not saying tropical peatlands are unique in this respect – but they are one important habitat where zoonotic diseases (those that jump from animals to humans) could emerge,” said Dr. Harrison. “Tropical peat-swamp forests are rich in fauna and flora, including numerous vertebrates known to represent zoonotic EID risk, such as bats, rodents, pangolins and primates.”

“Exploitation and fragmentation of these habitats, as well as peat wildfires (ultimately driven by human activity) and wildlife harvesting bring more and more people into close contact with peatland biodiversity, increasing the potential for zoonotic disease transmission.”

“Our review shows that protecting tropical peatlands isn’t therefore just about wildlife and carbon emissions – it’s also important for human health.”

The researchers investigated the possible impact of COVID-19 on tropical peatland conservation and local communities, and identified “numerous potential threats.” 

The team also noted the high impacts of COVID-19 in some countries with large tropical peatland areas – some of which do not have the resources to handle pandemics.

“Many communities in these areas are remote, relatively poor, disconnected, have limited infrastructure, sub-standard or non-existent medical facilities, and depend heavily on external trade,” said Dr. Ifo Suspense of Université Marien, Republic of Congo. “As a result, the direct and indirect impacts of COVID-19 may be particularly severe in these communities.”

Study co-author Dr. Muhammad Ali Imron pointed out that the effects of major wildfires in peatland areas that cause massive air pollution, particularly in South East Asia, also increase the threat of emerging human respiratory diseases like COVID-19.

“In terms of the impacts on peatlands themselves, we reveal that conservation, research and training are all being affected by the pandemic, which may result in increased habitat encroachment, wildlife harvesting and fires started to clear vegetation,” explained Dr. Ali.

The study authors conclude that the sustainable management of tropical peatlands and their wildlife is important for mitigating impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, and for reducing the potential for future zoonotic diseases. 

The study is published in the journal PeerJ.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

News coming your way
The biggest news about our planet delivered to you each day