When threatened, the pangolin — also known as the scaly anteater — curls up into a ball, hiding its head and face under its tail. While helpful in the short term, this posture prevents the pangolin from seeing what else can be done.
There are four pangolin species found in Asia and two in Sub-Saharan Africa. All six, protected by trade bans and threatened by tropical deforestation, jointly serve as the scapegoat for the COVID-19 pandemic that has zoomed across the world far more swiftly than a pangolin can scurry.
But the threat of COVID-19 has led humanity to curl up into a little ball, blind to the continued ravaging of what’s left of the planet’s tropical forests — and the resulting surge in contact between people and animals that leads to new viruses, from avian bird flu to zika, when the trees are gone.
Without forests as a buffer, activities like hunting, mining, and logging expose people to animals. These interactions lead to the spread of animal diseases to humans, known as “zoonotic diseases.” We’ve seen this with Zika, Avian Bird Flu, Ebola, and SARS, as well as Nipah, which leads to respiratory problems similar to those from COVID-19, and Kyasanur Forest Disease, spread by ticks.
Consider the Brazilian Amazon, which has no pangolins but far too much forest destruction, which has led to malaria outbreaks. The Democratic Republic of Congo — where deforestation is on the rise — is getting past yet another Ebola outbreak. Nigeria, a source of eight zoonotic diseases, is suffering from tremendous rates of forest loss as well.
And viruses aren’t the only health impacts from forest loss. Degraded forests also lead to polluted water supplies, higher temperatures, and a loss of nutrients in the soils.
When forests are cleared illegally by fire, set by big and small bad-actors engaged in commodity production, which is what led to epic uncontrolled forest fires in Brazil and Indonesia last year, the smoke inhalation can be deadly.
If we think long-term and holistically, there’s a solution to this public health risk: cracking down on illegal deforestation, one of the biggest causes of forest loss. Across the tropics and around the world, companies, often with the blessing of forest-nation governments, flout rules governing forests to tear them down for profit.
After the trees are cut down, the logs find their way to manufacturers that produce floorboards, paper napkins, and other ubiquitous products. All too often, the land laid bare by this deforestation isn’t even put to good use.
Studies of forest destruction in Mekong River-region countries, including Myanmar and Cambodia, found, for example, the agricultural planting that was supposed to happen after forests cleared for timber never did happen.
Swathes of deforested land were just left abandoned. With no sustainable landscape management strategies in place, these countries are frittering away a foundation of economic prosperity as well as public health.
The good news is, as the swift if unsteady reaction to COVID-19 has shown, it’s possible for the global community to muster the political will necessary to end a health scourge. Governments can take bold action that prioritizes long-term economic gain over short-term concerns.
If world leaders in the countries that produce and import products stemming from deforestation were to apply this good governance to ending illegal logging, they could eliminate one major cause of the deforestation leaving us vulnerable to zoonotic diseases and health risks.
Fortunately, many countries already have laws on the books to rout out illegal logging. The European Union has the most aggressive approach, working closely with timber-exporting countries to ensure the products heading to the continent are clean.
The US, Australia, and Japan also have legal means to clamp down on products stemming from illegal logging. These policies work, but enforcement of the rules must be more vigilant.
Forest nations must also play their part. Some countries, such as Indonesia, have tried to devise systems for ensuring their exports of wood and other products commonly produced on illegally cleared land are in the clear.
But these systems can only work if countries embrace full transparency. Forest nations also must use their powers to squeeze out the “worst-of-the-worst” in illegal production, reduce corruption, and attract investment by responsible industries.
If these countries were to have clear laws about how companies can use their lands, and back up these reforms with strict enforcement, forest nations could more easily attract responsible investors eager to play by the rules.
In fact, if producers, traders, and sellers of products stemming from illegal deforestation — whether it’s beef, soy, palm oil, or wood products — don’t play along, we can’t save forests. High-tech tools now widely available make it possible to ensure their products don’t trace back to illegal deforestation.
Companies that have pledged to go deforestation-free must double down on their efforts to clean up supply chains. More companies must join them. And governments on both sides of the supply chain must work hand in hand with the private sector.
COVID-19 has laid bare the risks that come when, like the pangolin, we curl up into a ball and wait for the threat to go away. But clamping down on illegal deforestation is one solution that is already on its way to being solved.
The coronavirus pandemic has simply added to the urgency. Acting now to end illegal logging will not only help prevent the next pandemic; it will bring enormous benefits for economies, plant and animal species, and the climate.