Most laws ignore ‘human-wildlife conflict’. This makes us vulnerable to pandemics



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Katie Woolaston, Queensland University of Technology

Never before have we seen how the human use of wildlife can yield such catastrophe, as we have with COVID-19.

The current available evidence indicates COVID-19 was first transmitted in a wildlife market in Wuhan. The disease likely originated in pangolins, bats, or a combination of both and was then transmitted to humans.

While various commentators have blamed pangolins, bats, or even our lack of “mastery” of wildlife, the real cause of this pandemic goes deeper – into the laws, cultures and institutions of most countries.




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At the root of the problem is a social phenomenon called “human-wildlife conflict”. This is when the interests of humans and the needs of wildlife overlap in a negative way.

Both the illegal wildlife trade and zoonotic diseases (that is, diseases transmitted from animals to humans) are aspects of human-wildlife conflict.

This ubiquitous phenomenon is poorly addressed in both international and domestic laws. And this grave omission has led to disastrous effects on humanity, as COVID-19 has shown.

A complex international issue

Disease outbreaks stemming from human-wildlife conflict are not new or limited to the Chinese wildlife trade. Ebola, for example, originated in the Western African country of Gabon. It was likely spread from a chimpanzee that was hunted and eaten by local people.

The Ebola virus could be connected to poverty in Gabon.
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Sometimes the disease itself creates the conflict. Hendra, a zoonotic disease confined to Australia, was passed from fruit bats to horses and then to humans. The outbreak prompted calls for fruit bats to be culled.

Research shows environmental destruction is also leading to an increase in zoonotic diseases. For example, clearing forests and destroying habitats can force animals to move closer to urban areas, bringing diseases with them.




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COVID-19 and Ebola can also be connected to poverty, as wildlife hunting is often connected to a basic need for food. Culture, politics, health, issues of gender equality and economics (to name a few), are all connected to human-wildlife conflicts as well.

The widespread impact of these types of viruses that can spread across international borders means that they should be governed as an international issue.

But there are no consistent international or domestic laws to guide governance of the multiple and interacting causes of pandemics.

Laws don’t go far enough

The human-wildlife relationship goes beyond issues of conservation and animal welfare, yet many of the world’s laws designed to tackle these multidimensional problems do not.

A select few laws have sought to implement a whole-systems approach to legal decision-making. For example, the Convention on Biological Diversity, an international treaty, requires ecosystem managers to consider the impact of environmental decision-making on multiple parts of society, including levels of poverty and economics.




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But this holistic approach isn’t reflected in domestic laws around the world that are supposed to enforce international treaties, such as Australia’s Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, which is currently under review by the federal government.

Collaborations, such as between health law and conservation law, must be put in place. For example, while the World Health Organisation works on zoonose (animal-borne disease) prevention, there is little interaction between it and the Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species.

No quick fix

Our legal systems – especially in the West and in international law – encourage separation and domination of the environment.

For example, the laws that designate protected areas explicitly separate people from wildlife, and this can drastically change the relationship between them. Laws also continue to encourage domination via implicit means, such as through legalised wildlife hunting and trade.

Don’t blame bats for the spread of Hendra virus.
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Various changes to law have been proposed in light of COVID-19, including closing all wildlife markets and trade.

But these types of fixes don’t address the many ways our health can be affected by wildlife use. Nor do they consider the poverty that often drives the consumption of wildlife, such as in Gabon and the other multiple causal factors.




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Such blanket legal prohibitions are neither appropriate nor adequate. We need legal changes on a larger scale. Laws must acknowledge how all humans are vulnerable to wildlife and broader environment change. If they haven’t even acknowledged this, then they can’t start to address it.

What needs to change?

Changes to the law at both the international and domestic level should focus on two primary areas.

First, increased cooperation is required between systems and areas of law in addressing the source of our vulnerability, instead of waiting for the vulnerability to become catastrophic, such as with COVID-19.

Second, both international and domestic laws must recognise the interdependency between humans and all aspects of the natural environment, in every area of law – from environmental law, to trade law, human rights and corporate law.

Ecuador, for example, integrated this idea into its national constitution so the necessity of environmental protection is linked to the continued existence of its people.




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Another way is to integrate nature into the objectives of each piece of law. This includes all international treaties and domestic pieces of legislation, even those that do not expressly deal with matters of the environment, such as health law, where a healthy environment is directly linked to human health.

No, this is not a small undertaking. But as the catastrophe of COVID-19 has demonstrated, the problems we face if we don’t change are far more onerous in all aspects of our lives.The Conversation

Katie Woolaston, Lawyer, Queensland University of Technology

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

We know contact with nature makes you feel better. Can virtual contact do the same?



There is a link between exposure to natural settings and better psychological well-being.
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Navjot Bhullar, University of New England

You might have noticed that being in nature can improve your mood. Whether it’s walking in a beautiful rainforest, swimming in the ocean or a moment of wonder at the plants and animals around you, nature offers a respite from daily routines and demands.

In 1984, the sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson described this innate desire to connect with natural environments – and the positive experiences we derive from this connection – as the “biophilia hypothesis”:

Biophilia, if it exists, and I believe it exists, is the innately emotional affiliation of human beings to other living organisms.

There is evidence to back up the link between exposure to natural settings and better psychological well-being.

And my own research suggests that virtual exposure to nature via film (videos) or virtual reality can mimic this effect.




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Why being in nature makes us feel better

Studies on the psychological benefits of exposure to nature show spending time in natural settings can result in:

Two major theories help us understand how exposure to nature increases mood and psychological well-being.

First, Attention Restoration Theory is the idea that natural environments restore attention. We can only focus our attention for a certain period of time before feeling mentally fatigued. A short break in natural environments helps restore it.

This sense of “restorativeness” improves our sense of well-being, and breaks the routine of our every day life. Restorativeness explains some of the association between nature experience and psychological well-being.

Then there is Stress Reduction Theory. This suggests that natural environments promote recovery from stress, which is different from attention fatigue.

Non-threatening, natural environments would have increased the chances of survival for our ancestors because they provided opportunities for reproduction, food and shelter. As a result, we’ve evolved to respond positively to such settings.

Emotional responses to aesthetically pleasing stimuli, such as green spaces, also tend to decrease physiological arousal, thus making us feel relaxed.




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Virtual contact with nature mimics this effect

In a meta-analysis of 32 studies, researchers compared the effects of exposure to both natural and urban environments. Results showed that exposure to natural environments showed a moderate association with higher positive mood.

This exposure doesn’t have to take place in-person. Research I conducted with my colleagues at the University of New England’s Applied Psychology Lab showed that while people got the most psychological benefit from physical exposure to nature, exposure to simulated natural environments – such as film or virtual reality – had a comparable effect.

One study showed that taking part in a virtual reality experience of a natural environment resulted in higher levels of positive affect and greater attention restoration compared to a virtual reality experience of an urban environment.

Psychological benefits seem to be dependent on the type of nature experience. Another study found that a virtual experience of wild nature (defined as natural settings, such as wilderness with little human interference) improved positive mood. By contrast, a virtual experience of urban nature (such as parks in urbanised areas) exerted its beneficial effect by reducing negative mood.

The studies also showed that simulated natural environments providing realistic representations of nature, such as interactive virtual reality, resulted in greater psychological benefits than less immersive mediums such as photographs of natural settings.




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Increasing our daily contact with nature

In a modern world increasingly characterised by built environments, it’s not always possible to spend time in nature every day. Promoting exposure to virtual natural environments seems like an effective way of improving psychological well-being.

Simulated representations of nature can help improve urban and indoor environments where access to nature is limited, such as hospitals, urban offices, apartments, and inner city schools.

That might mean displaying photographs and moving videos of natural colours and patterns, installing living green walls, or placing potted plants in areas people move through everyday.The Conversation

Navjot Bhullar, Associate Professor – Faculty of Medicine and Health; School of Psychology, University of New England

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.