Landscape in Madagascar

Intact ecosystems vital to prevent the spread of pandemics

How IKI contributes to the well-being of humanity by protecting biodiversity.


Functioning ecosystems are one of the pillars of human existence – and our health is particularly dependent on them. After all, it is nature that provides humans with the ecosystem services that are essential for survival and crucial to our well-being: clean water, healthy food and medical products are only a few examples of these services. We are also dependent on functioning ecosystems to reduce our vulnerability to the effects of climate change and natural disasters. However, the functionality of ecosystems also depends on their biodiversity, as only an ecological balance can guarantee the stability and performance of the ecosystem.

The COVID-19 pandemic (Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2) has dramatically demonstrated how crucial the protection of natural habitats is for human health. However, this interrelationship has so far received far too little attention and consideration.

If wild animals lose their natural habitats, they move to areas populated by humans, thereby increasing contact and the risk of transmitted diseases.

Human beings and animals need their own habitats

The consequences of shrinking habitats are manifold – if wild animals lose their natural habitats, they move to areas populated by humans, thereby increasing contact and the risk of transmitted diseases. The destruction and alteration of natural and species-rich habitats also leads to the loss of many important species within the ecosystem. As the habitat is impoverished, it is increasingly dominated by a few less specialised, but more competitive species (generalists). The risk of transmission of infectious diseases increases in species-poor and disturbed habitats due to the high population of these generalist species that promote the spread of diseases. In addition, the generalists usually prefer living near humans, in agricultural and urban areas, which can also foster chains of infection.

The protection and restoration of habitats and biodiversity are therefore crucial, because if the natural ‘protective barriers’ are maintained between healthy human beings and animals which are infected with pathogens, the risk of the animal-human transmission of diseases is greatly reduced.

The exploitation of wild animals, through hunting and trade and ultimately the consumption of wildlife meat poses yet another risk to human health. In many regions, the meat from wild animals is an important source of protein and is even regarded as a delicacy. However, this widespread trade and consumption are insufficiently regulated and managed, for instance, in terms of compliance with hygiene rules. Illegal hunting (poaching) and the national and international illegal wildlife trade are particularly problematic, because a large number of species are affected, some of which are suspected to be vectors of COVID-19 or Ebola, such as pangolins and fruit bats. Among other factors, the global wildlife trade is also intensified by the loss of income opportunities for rural populations dependent on the additional income and source of protein. This is further exacerbated by the effects of climate change on small-scale agriculture.

To reduce the risk of pandemics such as COVID-19 in the future and minimise the point of origin of the pathogens, increased global and national efforts are urgently needed in line with nature conservation issues. We should also expand our knowledge base regarding this topic. We need to raise awareness  on the links between human well-being and the protection of nature in the collective minds of the people: relevant stakeholders and society as a whole must be sensitised to the issue. The current global spread and effects of the COVID-19 pandemic make the interrelationships explained here all too clear. We must use these new levels of awareness and attention to create the foundation for a transformative change in our society.

The health of humanity as a cross-sectoral issue in the IKI

Since its inception, the International Climate Initiative (IKI) has been working to counteract the destruction and fragmentation of ecosystems. IKI-funded projects help to create new protected areas and expand existing ones. The projects support partner countries in the sustainable management of protected areas and their buffer zones in cooperation with local populations, and they also contribute to combating poaching. In addition, the IKI strengthens environmental awareness in partner countries through its projects, imparting knowledge about the interrelationships between ecosystem services and the protection of human livelihoods.

There are a  number of IKI projects benefiting many countries. One example is the project. It strengthens three protected areas in the northern Amazon (Yasuní, Limoncocha, Cuyabeno) preventing human invasion of the natural rainforest and the resulting fragmentation of ecosystems and loss of biodiversity and also seeks to contain the growing oil production in these regions. These measures protect the habitats of migratory animal groups such as monkeys and pangolins.

In Guatemala, the “Development of business models for cooperation with the private sector as an instrument for the socially acceptable restoration of near-natural forests“ project successfully supports the management of three protected areas with 180,790 hectares of forest, in which no protection measures have been implemented to date. Since 2018, a Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool app (SMART) has been used by patrols in the core zone of the national park to strengthen nature protection management and monitoring. Among other functions, the app also enables the sighting and monitoring of rare animal species.

 Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety Svenja Schulze
Photo: BMU/photothek/Thomas Trutschel

“The destruction of nature is the crisis behind the corona crisis and vice-versa: a good nature protection policy, which protects diverse ecosystems, is an important health precaution against the development of new diseases.”

SMART patrols also play an important role in various projects. They are not only used for species monitoring, but they are also an important source of information and a management tool for resolving human-animal conflicts and poaching. For example, they are used in the “Conserving priority habitats in the Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park, Sumatra“ project. However, modern technology is not the only important factor in the management of project areas. Cooperation with local communities is also essential, because joint measures and habitat protection help to resolve human-animal conflicts and prevent their occurrence. Thanks to its awareness-raising work, the project in Indonesia informs the local population on how an intact natural environment is linked to clean water, fertile soil and food security among other benefits. And also, how important life in harmony with nature is for human beings.

The project “Scaling up biodiversity communication for achieving Aichi Target 1” addresses the necessary sensitisation and awareness-raising measures, taking them to a global level. Through educational measures and digital communication, it informs up to one billion people all over the world about the values of biodiversity and the threat it faces from the consequences of climate change. The work of these communication projects to raise awareness is becoming increasingly important, particularly with regard to the performance of ecosystems as natural protection against epidemics and the spread of zoonoses such as COVID-19.

Only through increased awareness of the interrelationships between health and the protection of the natural foundations of life, will we be able to increase the level of general willingness that is necessary to tackle a transformative change in society and fundamentally change people’s understanding of nature.

Header-Photo: BMU/Miguel Schmitter