Why Wild Places Matter: Because they Keep Us Healthy

red fox

So why do wild places with abundant and diverse wildlife matter?  Well, one reason is that they literally keep us from getting sick. No, I don't mean that wild places offer us recreational opportunities and a healthier lifestyle (although they do) or that they keep our spirits healthy (although they do that, too). They actually keep devastating diseases at bay.

On Sunday, the New York Times published a must-read article on the emerging science about the relationship between habitat disturbance, the decline in biological diversity, and the spread of disease. Here's the key insight:

...a developing model of infectious disease that shows that most epidemics—AIDS, Ebola, West Nile, SARS, Lyme disease and hundreds more that have occurred over the last several decades—don’t just happen. They are a result of things people do to nature.

How?  Two quick examples. First, take deforestation.  As it turns out, one side effect of cutting down intact native forests is that you create ideal mosquito habitat. And, in many countries, mosquitoes carry malaria, a disease responsible for killing an estimated 700,000 people a year. Thus:

 In the Amazon, for example, one study showed an increase in deforestation by some 4 percent increased the incidence of malaria by nearly 50 percent, because mosquitoes, which transmit the disease, thrive in the right mix of sunlight and water in recently deforested areas.

Second, take the disappearance of foxes. Scientists have discovered that the prevalence of lyme disease in New York State is closely linked to the decline of foxes. Foxes prey of mice, who are crucial to the spread of lyme disease carrying ticks. As a recent article in Scientific American put it:

The foxes were pushed out by coyotes, which have been on the rise since New York lost its wolves. Which were driven away by humans. Who now get bit by ticks.

So think twice if you are ever tempted to dismiss concerns about wild places and wildlife as just so much tree hugger idealism. The wild places we inherited--the last ones that we have left—may quite literally be keeping you and your family safe.