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Conservation Research Institute


Coronavirus and Conservation: An Interdisciplinary Conversation

Charlotte Milbank, Interdisciplinary PhD Candidate. Geography and Epidemiology. Lucy Goodman, Geography and Land Economy.

The COVID-19 pandemic has sparked strong debates within the global conservation community. In particular, the COVID-19 has created anxiety about appropriate species protection as knee-jerk reactions from policymakers have been seen. Here, PhD students, Charlotte Milbank and Lucy Goodman summarise the key insights from an interdisciplinary panel with speakers from University of Cambridge Conservation Research Institute on COVID-19 and the challenges for conservation. The panel included:

On 24th February 2020, the Chinese Government announced the prohibition of the illegal trade of wild animals, eliminating the "bad habits" of wild animal consumption and "protecting the health and safety of the people” [1].

While the origins of COVID-19 are still uncertain, it came to the human population via an animal or animals – a so-called "zoonotic" disease. As a result, there are widespread calls for the regulation, or outright banning, of wildlife consumption and trade across public, political and scientific media - echoing messages the conservation community have repeated for decades. Here, we summarise five key insights from a virtual interdisciplinary panel from the University of Cambridge Conservation Research Institute on conservation and coronavirus on the 7th of May. This was hugely popular event attended by over 100 people.

Drawing from all six schools of the University of Cambridge and nine international biodiversity conservation organisations from the Cambridge Conservation Initiative (CCI), the Conservation Research Institute are well-placed to comment on the impacts of the public health crisis on conservation and the environment, and[LG1]  to inform effective, context-sensitive conservation policy that is both sustainable and safe.

  1. Emerging zoonotic diseases aren't just a 'wild'-life problem.

A cluster of early COVID-19 cases were traced back to the Huanan 'wet' market in Wuhan, where live 'wild' animals are slaughtered upon purchase. The market as a source of the outbreak has since been subject to scrutiny, and it's often assumed that contact with "wild" wildlife carries higher risk of disease exposure. But to look only at "wild" species overlooks the fact that people are far more frequently in contact with domestic animals, thus creating more opportunities for disease spillover to humans. In fact, only 3% of emerging infectious disease from 1940-2004 are attributable to the consumption of bushmeat [2,3].

  1. ... nor are they just a food problem. 

The recent Chinese ban purported to eliminate the 'bad habits' of wildlife consumption. However, to look only at zoonotic disease emergence as a problem of (mal-)consumption also obscures a plethora of other human actions, activities and industries in which exposure to zoonotic pathogens regularly occur. 

Land-use changes, including the encroachment of human agriculture and industry, into areas inhabited by wildlife increasingly bring humans into close contact with wild animal hosts. The intensification of agriculture is a concern for zoonoses from domestic animals. As species are bred for specific production qualities and taxonomic diversity is reduced, the resilience to disease is also limited.

Spillover in these examples doesn't always happen through food consumption but through human contact with contaminated environments or objects. For instance, pathogens could be transmitted from bats by consuming them, but also through using their faeces, guano, which is a very rich fertiliser, on farms. Further, the use of antibiotics in the livestock industry, a practice which is widespread globally, could compound the potential for disease spread.

Another factor discussed in the panel was there are different rules and regulations for animals consumed for food, and those consumed for medicine. This is despite the fact that purpose may have neither bearing on zoonosis risk or conservation policy and introduces a loophole through which zoonoses may slip.

Effective policies should consider opportunities for spillover across diverse activities that might pose a risk - and not just acts of consumption. 

  1. Blanket bans are not the answer...

There are still many uncertainties in the origins of COVID-19. Whilst we are fairly confident that bats are the host species, the existence of a potential intermediate species (which facilitated bat-human transmission) is unknown, as well as where the spillover event (or events) might have taken place. With these vast epidemiological uncertainties remaining, the risk of knee jerk policy reactions that are not grounded in science is high - and could have negative public health and environmental repercussions.

Calls for blanket bans on consumption and trade of wildlife not only overlook other avenues and sites of transmission (as discussed above) but also overlook the varied impacts that such bans could have across the world.

Many rural and indigenous communities rely on wild produce, particularly meat, fish and insects, as their sole source of dietary protein, fat and micronutrients [4,5]. To make them illegal could threaten their continued food security. Furthermore, such bans could push wildlife trading underground, where regulating appropriate handling and hygiene measures becomes far more difficult. 

The differentiated impacts of a global ban on wild meat consumption become particularly stark when comparisons are made between countries. As noted by one panellist, if we ban the consumption of bush meat, do we both ban sport hunting of roe deer in Europe and antelope in Sub-Saharan Africa? A ban might seem simple, but may have adverse impacts on the poor who rely on wild meat for protein, and be extremely complicated to implement globally in a fashion that actually reduces zoonoses.

  1. ...nor is mass culling.

That COVID-19 coronavirus likely originated in bats has generated substantial media coverage, and there is danger that misguided peoples will leap to mass culling as an obvious solution. Bats provide valuable ecosystem services, including eating insect pests, pollinating fruit and providing fertiliser. Conservationists have already voiced concern about the ongoing safety of bat species, a third of which feature on IUCN threatened species list [6]. 

We have seen historically that species culls are often ineffective in reducing the spread of disease: in Latin America, a cull of vampire bats failed to reduce the prevalence of rabies [7], and a resurgence in Marburg virus cases was seen after a cull of Egyptian fruit bats in Uganda [8].

The process of culling brings humans into direct exposure of animal host species, and it may also force species to migrate into areas of greater proximity to humans. Furthermore, we know there are a huge number of other species that may be reservoir to zoonotic disease. Conservation-aside, culling one species is but a drop in the ocean. Recent calls for culls underscore the urgent need to develop a robust evidence-base on zoonoses from wild species, and the need for effective communication to policymakers in guiding wildlife management.

  1. The handling of the pandemic can teach us important lessons in science communication. 

Throughout the pandemic, the wider public has demonstrated by-and-large a thirst for information, and as one panellist noted, an ability to digest sophisticated non-linear models. This underscores the importance of ensuring that science and policy, including conservation science and policy, are accurately and effectively communicated and not oversimplified. The panel reflected on how with limited resources, conservation should draw from psychology and analyse consumer behaviour, to create long term consumer behavioural change.

The circulation of unverified information could have damaging repercussions on conservation: a recent survey of over 2000 British adults reported that 38% believe the pandemic came from animals, with another 15% believing it was developed in a lab [9]. A survey from Australian residents living near to yarra bat populations saw over 90% desiring they be culled [10].

In an era of fake news where "A lie gets halfway around the world before truth puts on its boots", trailing a virus in its wake, those with expertise in environmental and conservation sciences should be speaking up. Notwithstanding the devastating impacts that the pandemic has had thus far, there are lessons to be learned and opportunities to be seized, provided we engage effectively with policymakers and an active public - and appreciate the nuances of disease epidemiology and the diverse impacts of policy.  

Both the social and natural sciences have a role to play in finding interdisciplinary insights to share with the public, and Conservation Research Institute and CCI partners are uniquely positioned to provide these. Last week's meeting marked a first opportunity to re-engage with each other, now we can't share a physical space, and will be followed by more online discussions. The next will address the question "What, if anything, is going to change in environmental policy?".

Views here are expressly the opinions of the authors, reporting on a panel from Conservation Research Institute. They should not be taken to represent the University of Cambridge, Conservation Research Institute or CCI partners. All photos are the authors’ own.


Zoonotic diseases: (or 'zoonoses') diseases that exist in (non-human) animals, but can infect humans.

Host species: (or 'reservoir') the species in which disease is normally found.

Intermediate species: (or 'vector') the species which transmits disease between host and human.


  1. Vyawahare, M., 2020. Chinese Ban On Eating Wild Animals Likely To Become Law: Q&A With WCS’S Aili Kang. [online] Mongabay Environmental News. Available at: < [Accessed 13 May 2020].
  2. UNEP (2016). UNEP Frontiers 2016 Report: Emerging Issues of Environmental Concern. United
  3. Loh, E. H. et al. (2015) ‘Targeting Transmission Pathways for Emerging Zoonotic Disease Surveillance and Control’, Vector-Borne and Zoonotic Diseases. Mary Ann Liebert Inc., 15(7), pp. 432–437. doi: 10.1089/vbz.2013.1563.Nations Environment Programme, Nairobi.
  4. Rowland, D. et al. (2017) ‘Forest foods and healthy diets: Quantifying the contributions’, Environmental Conservation. Cambridge University Press, 44(2), pp. 102–114. doi: 10.1017/S0376892916000151.
  5. Nasi, R., Taber, A. and Van Vliet, N. (2011) ‘Empty forests, empty stomachs? Bushmeat and livelihoods in the Congo and Amazon Basins’, International Forestry Review, 13(3), pp. 355–368. doi: 10.1505/146554811798293872.
  6. IUCN (2015). IUCN SSC position statement on the culling of the Mauritius Fruit Bat in,
  7. Streicker D.G., Recuenco S., Valderrama W., Benavides J. G., Vargas I, Pacheco V, et al. Ecological and anthropogenic drivers of rabies exposure in vampire bats: implications for transmission and control. Proceedings of the Royal Society B-Biological Sciences. 2012;279:3384–3392.
  8. Amman BR, Nyakarahuka L, McElroy AK, Dodd KA, Sealy TK, Schuh AJ, et al. Marburgvirus Resurgence in Kitaka Mine Bat Population after Extermination Attempts, Uganda. Emerging Infectious Diseases. 2014;20:1761–1764.
  9. Lipinski, D., 2020. British People Blame Chinese Government More Than Their Own For The Spread Of Coronavirus. [online] The Conversation. Available at: < [Accessed 12 May 2020].
  10. Hall, B., 2020. Expert bats away call for 'ridiculous' cull of Yarra Bend flying foxes. The Age, [online] Available at: < [Accessed 12 May 2020].