The Global Biodiversity Crisis Just Got Personal

Stay at home order in San Francisco

Christopher Michel via Flickr

If you want to understand how the biodiversity crisis will affect you and your daily life, just look around. Where are you right now? Are you at home, working in the dining room, managing kids, walking the dog (again), and maybe watching Tiger King on Netflix?

Maybe you’re one of the millions of people for whom the situation is much more dire, and you’re wondering how the few items you have left in the fridge can make an actual family meal or how you’re going to pay your bills. Or worse, you’re caring for a sick family member or grieving the loss of a loved one and wondering how we can stop a tragedy like this from happening again.

Well, you’re stuck at home and your life is turned upside down because of the biodiversity crisis, plain and simple.

Renewed focus on the global biodiversity crisis began in May, when a UN report issued the dire warning that up to one million species could go extinct, many within decades, without totally transforming the ways in which we use and abuse the natural world. Since then, a big challenge for NRDC, and for anyone who is talking about biodiversity loss and ecosystem decline, has been communicating the possible impacts on people and their everyday lives. 

Those days are over, and here’s why: 

COVID-19 is a zoonotic virus, which means it came from animals. Though scientists are still working to determine the specific host animals and the pathway that the disease took from animals to humans, most agree that wild animals were the original carriers of the disease. Wild animals were the carriers for other coronaviruses as well such as SARS, MERS, and H5N1 (Avian flu).

Millions of animals are taken from the wild each year for domestic and international commercial trade in wildlife. Many of the animals are used for food, like those in the wildlife markets in China that are suspected of being the source of COVID-19, or for other purposes like traditional medicine, luxury goods, or as pets. Some of the wildlife trade is illegal, but the majority is legal. And make no mistake: Wildlife markets and wildlife consumption occur everywhere. While China is a large market for wildlife, the U.S., Japan, and Europe (the European Union and the United Kingdom), and many others are as well.

The direct exploitation of wild species for food or for other purposes is the second leading driver of global biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse after habitat loss (it’s the leading driver for marine species). As more and more animals are taken from the wild for use by people, the risk of transfer of zoonotic diseases from wild species to domestic animals and humans grows. Conversions of wild lands for development, agriculture, and resource extraction, along with climate change, also increase the risk of transfer of disease from wild species to humans.

UNEP 2016

The overall impacts of the biodiversity crisis will be widespread and severe, but they have also been amorphous and difficult to quantify or describe with any certainty until now. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, unfortunately, at least some of those impacts can be measured in terms of massive economic losses, total disruptions in society, and, tragically, rates of illness and loss of life. Decision successes and failures and government or population response times and actions are factors which may increase or decrease the severity of those impacts.

One question you may be asking is: Did the biodiversity crisis cause the COVID-19 pandemic? The answer is no, at least not any more than climate change can be called the cause of a specific weather event like Hurricane Katrina. But the biodiversity crisis, which is driven in part by global wildlife trade, is making it much more likely that such pandemics will occur, just like climate change is exacerbating the conditions that make frequent, intense hurricanes or other severe weather events more likely. Plus, the global nature of the COVID-19 pandemic makes it more similar to a scenario where intense, destructive weather events are happening simultaneously all over the world, with catastrophic impacts for people and the planet. 

We’ll be talking a lot about the specific connections and links between the biodiversity crisis and COVID-19 in the coming weeks and months, along with exactly what NRDC thinks should be done about it when it comes to wildlife trade. For now, it’s time we recognize the biodiversity crisis for what it is—an immediate threat to our lives, our economy, and our safety—and begin to act accordingly.

About the Authors

Paul Todd

Senior Staff Attorney, Nature program

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