By Dr. Theresa Mundita S. Lim
Asean Centre for Biodiversity Executive Director*
THE unprecedented rate by which we are losing our wildlife had hit much closer to home when the Covid-19 pandemic and its global consequences affected our ways of living and brought suffering to many places in the world. While the roll-out of vaccines boosts confidence, this does not fully protect and immunize us from new and emerging diseases that result from the many human-driven activities in our midst.
In celebrating World Wildlife Day, the Asean Centre for Biodiversity (ACB) likewise takes the opportunity to direct attention to the role of wildlife habitats, most especially forests. The theme of this year's celebration "Forests and Livelihoods: Sustaining People and Planet" is a timely reminder of the life support that forest ecosystems provide.
The high species diversity and endemicity in Asean forests makes the region one of the world's critical habitats. However, according to the Global Forest Resources Assessment of the Food and Agriculture Organization, from 2.18 million square kilometers in 2000, the total forest areas in the 10 Asean Member States contracted to 2.07 million square kilometers in 2020. Inevitably, this decline has been causing fragmentation and habitat loss for important animals and plants, not to mention the displacement of indigenous peoples and the reduction of natural buffers for calamities.
This ongoing health crisis has brought about deeper reflection and discussion on the repercussions of our relationship with wildlife and the many pathways to safeguard nature.
In a recent webinar on preventing pandemics hosted by World Wildlife Fund, Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, and Cornell Atkinson Centre for Sustainability, and moderated by Thomas Friedman of The New York Times, the ACB emphasized that apart from enforcing laws against wildlife crimes at the national and regional levels, it is crucial to stop emerging diseases at the source, meaning actions should begin before animals are taken out of their natural habitats. Increasing the coverage and improving the management of protected areas will reduce threats on ecosystems and lessen opportunities for viruses originating from wildlife to spill over to domestic animals and humans.
Indeed, protecting our wildlife species contributes to increasing our resiliency. They not only contain and regulate diseases, but they also contribute to the ecological balance and expansion of forests. Wildlife supplies raw materials to sustain the livelihoods of communities living in and around their habitats, and provides basic necessities, such as food and natural cure for various ailments. As we face one crisis after another, we need to take into account the importance of the diversity of flora and fauna in our response and recovery efforts.
The Asean Comprehensive Recovery Framework, which was adopted by the Asean leaders in November 2020, calls for a whole-of-community participation and collaboration among sectors. The ACB is optimistic that an integrated approach in protecting and conserving wildlife, along with effective immunization programmes, are concrete steps towards Asean's recovery, as well as in building resilience against future pandemics.
In this year's celebrations of World Wildlife Day, we are encouraged to value the interconnectedness of wildlife and people, and appreciate the significant contribution of healthy forests to livelihood and public health. In the long run, protecting wildlife and their habitats somehow also acts as a vaccine that can help build our capacity to withstand socio-economic challenges and ensure a sustainable future.
Happy World Wildlife Day!
Dr. Theresa Mundita S. Lim is the executive director of the Asean Centre for Biodiversity (ACB). A veterinarian and wildlife management expert, she was the director of the Biodiversity Management Bureau of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources of the Philippines prior to joining the ACB. She also chaired the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity's Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical, and Technological Advice (SBSTTA) from 2017 to 2018.