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Home >Lounge >Features >‘We have to find a different way of living’: Jane Goodall on the covid-19 crisis

Renowned British primatologist and anthropologist Jane Goodall laughs when I ask if the world will be better prepared to face pandemics and other disease outbreaks that might hit us in the future. Speaking over the phone from the UK, the 86-year-old says most countries were not ready to handle an outbreak of such magnitude but believes people will learn from the current travails and be “more prepared".

Goodall’s behavioural research on chimpanzee populations in the Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania, starting 1960, remains a pioneering piece of work on understanding more about the closest living relatives to humans. A new 2-hour documentary, Jane Goodall: The Hope, highlighting her work and journey to becoming one of the most renowned figures in wildlife conservation, premieres in India at 8pm on 22 April, on the National Geographic channel.

It comes as no surprise that in some of her recent interviews, Goodall has called for a “global ban" on wildlife trade, given the possible crucial role of a wet market in China where the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, is believed to have originated. During our conversation, she reiterates that bans, if they have been imposed, have not been enforced strictly.

Goodall spoke to Lounge about the threat to endangered wildlife species posed by illegal trafficking, the visible effects of climate change and why we have a lot more to learn when it comes to animal species, human beings and infectious diseases. Edited excerpts from a phone interview:

Stricter regulations on wildlife trafficking, farming and consumption of wild animals have been debated for long. What are some of the loopholes?

Unfortunately, a great deal of this trafficking is illegal. It has been illegal for a long time. Endangered species should not be trafficked. But there’s a huge underground network, so these wild animals are smuggled in under all sorts of different labels. It’s very hard to detect. So it’s really enforcement of the ban that is important and it is being evaded. That’s the problem. Also, in China they are banning the use of wild animals for food, but they are still allowing some of them to be used for medicine. So if you use a pangolin to get the scales for medicine which, of course, doesn’t really work, you can still eat the flesh.

What does the current pandemic tell us about the different forms of interaction between humans and animal species?

What’s happening is, first of all, we are destroying the environment, unfortunately, and now the forest with its rich biodiversity. As we invade animals’ habitats, they are forced to crowd closer and closer together, which means that a virus can pass from one animal to another. Also, animals are forced into closer contact with us. In India, you have the wonderful example of the macaque (one species of monkey is common in urban settlements in India)....

When they (different animals) are in stressed conditions in the markets as pets or whatever, that’s when the virus that started in another animal ended up in this animal and now it can cross the species barrier into humans, providing a similar kind or family of viruses in humans and they bond and they make a new mutation, which has caused the covid-19.

Bats and pangolins have come in for some harsh criticism, given the possible origins of this new virus. Do you think we need to study certain animal species more closely to understand zoonotic diseases?

People have been really learning about these beings and viruses for a very long time. And they have been predicting epidemics and this pandemic, for years. There’s an awful lot known about it. It’s not always absolutely clear where the virus originally came from, but the steps by which it has moved from one animal to another to a person, are pretty well understood. The trouble is nobody has paid attention.

You know, the SARS epidemic (2002-04) was an example of the same kind of coronavirus, thought to have been caught from a civet in a wet market in China, and the civet is thought to have caught it from a bat. This last one, covid-19, possibly began in a bat again and then moved into a pangolin and then into us in a wet market. HIV began from people eating chimpanzees in Africa, and two epidemics began in the slaughterhouses where domestic animals are confined in unsanitary and very cruel conditions.

You once said that by damaging the natural world and exterminating species, we were destroying our own future. Where do we stand today?

I think the window is closing on us. There will be a point of no return, and it is not just pandemics, which are expected to get worse if we don’t start respecting nature and realizing we are a part of it. But then we have climate change. You are feeling the effect of climate change in India and you have huge problems with people crowding into animal habitats. And that’s a major problem, not only for India but Africa too. So we have to find a different way of operating, a different way of living. We have to have different goals and, somehow, different politicians in many cases.

There have been reports from around the world about the benefits to wildlife and the environment as a result of the ongoing lockdown. Can stopping or reducing certain human activities have such an immediate effect?

Well, already it must have had a big effect in your cities like Mumbai, which have had terrible, terrible levels of pollution and I imagine that there you have clearer skies, just as is the case in parts of China and the US. So my hope is that enough people will suddenly realize what life can be like and there will be enough pressure on politicians to actually enforce restrictions on emissions from fossil fuel burning. India is playing a major role in developing solar energy and wind energy, I think, and maybe there will be more push to speed that up, to have it spread over more and more of the country, and more and more of the world.

Looking at how this pandemic has affected the world, do you think we will be better prepared to handle such a situation in the future?

Well, hopefully, yes. I mean, world politicians, certainly in the US at the beginning, and the UK as well, simply said, “Oh don’t worry, it’s not going to be too bad. It will go away," and so our countries were not prepared. We did not have enough ventilators and people who understood well enough to cope. So I am sure next time people will be more prepared as more ventilators will be made, more masks will be produced, and so, yes, we should have a better understanding. The main thing is to prevent these pandemics (from) starting, (and that can happen) only if we respect nature.

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