MAY 2020  
Acknowledging Our Biodiverse World: Possible Links Between Biodiversity, Deforestation, and Pandemic

Biodiversity, also known as biological diversity, is the variety of life on earth found across different levels of biological organization. Our biodiversity encompasses the following components:

  • Species diversity is defined as the abundance of different species in any location. This takes into account both the richness and relative abundance of species in a particular area/region.
  • Genetic diversity refers to the variation in genetic material found within a single species or population. For instance, genetic diversity is the variation in genes that encode for hair colour in humans.
  • Ecological diversity refers to the varied ecosystems within a region or the variation in ecosystems all over the planet. Ecological diversity can also take into account the number of different niches, trophic levels, and other ecological processes. Globally, ecological diversity comprises the varied ecosystems such as forests, deserts, grasslands, wetlands, and oceans.

Why Is Biodiversity Important?

Humankind is part of an ecosystem, made of several biota, or ecosystems that guarantee our well-being. The biodiversity of our planet ensures we have enough to eat, drink, and lead a healthy, happy life. Many plant species that are the primary producers in the food chain provide us food and medicines, thereby helping us thrive on this planet. Our forests maintain groundwater levels that in turn nurture the quality of soil, and balance the right temperature to keep the planet habitable, besides ensuring adequate precipitation to sustain life. Removing even a single living being—be it an insect, a reptile or a mammal—from this chain can lead to an ecological disaster.

Forests are rich repositories of genetic diversity in the form of flora and fauna. The importance of biodiversity was realized only too well by our ancestors. That is why, ancient civilizations, particularly in India, emphasized on imparting respect to our wealth of flora and fauna. Rituals involving the worship of tulsi (basil) plant, vat (banyan) tree, including planting of neem trees in villages, distribution of jaggery on neem leaves to mark the new year (during Gudi Padwa in Maharashtra), or even celebrating the Naraka Chaturdashi on Diwali with traditional consumption of green vegetables.

Our harvest festivals celebrated the significance of flora and fauna and such festivals acknowledged the role played by them in providing sustenance and keeping us healthy. Forests, as repositories of biodiversity, would be showered with love and care. Hermitages presided over by venerable sages were considered instrumental in conserving floral and faunal biodiversity.

However, the discipline and regard for nature have been overcome by our greed in recent times. It has led to extreme exploitation of many floral species, and made us destroy wildlife habitats. For instance, the uncontrolled accumulation of medicinal plants for Ayurvedic herbal formulations has caused the near-extinction of many species, rendering several as critically endangered. In India, the government was therefore, compelled to issue a standardized set of rules to be followed in the matter of usage of medicinal plants.

Besides economic considerations, there is a scientific aspect to the role of forests, since forests define ecosystems. Deforestation can transform whole ecosystems, and affect disease transmission in various ways. Deforestation results in loss of habitat for living creatures and brings them in close contact with humans. There are a number of pathogens, and vectors that have a benign existence in the guts of birds and wild mammals. But the moment we come in close contact with wild animals, these pathogens and vectors enter the human body. As a result, they end up mutating into deadly forms, causing death and disaster, as evident in the past outbreaks of the Ebola, Nipah and other viruses.

When such ‘spillover’ events happen frequently enough, animal microbes begin to adapt to our bodies and eventually evolve into human pathogens. Similarly, avian influenza viruses, which originate in the bodies of wild waterfowl, rampage in factory farms packed with captive chickens, mutating and becoming more virulent. The H5N1 strain, for example, kills more than half of the infected population.

This happens because when forests are cleared up, many forest-dwelling species are rendered homeless. These creatures then seek refuge on trees in our backyards, or in wooded parts of the villages, putting human health at risk, especially when they come in contact with the food we consume. Consequently, pandemics start occurring at regular intervals, endangering populations all over the world.

Pandemics and Beyond

The first pandemic in the modern age was the Spanish flu of 1918, which killed thousands during World War I. Decades later, we had to contend with the 2008-2010 swine flu pandemic, where for the first time, the World Health Organization had to declare a ‘public health emergency of international concern.’ During 2013-2016, we had to deal with the Ebola outbreak that began in West Africa and spread to many parts of the world. There have been epidemics caused by the Zika virus in South America, and the Nipah virus in South and Southeast Asia, affecting many, and killing a few. But none have matched the scale and monstrosity of the current coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

As indicated in a recent report by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), such zoonotic diseases provide evidence of the link between us and our ecosystem, our forests and biodiversity, and climate change. While pointing out that about 1 million of the 8 million known species are endangered, even as about 6 million hectares of forests have disappeared worldwide every year since 2000, the report has cautioned that if greenhouse gas emissions are not drastically reduced, and if the increase in global average temperature is more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, then a virus more contagious than corona could emerge, thereby putting human race to greater danger and health risk.

Loss of Forest Cover and Zoonotic Diseases

The link between deforestation and pandemics emerges more clearly when specifics are delved into and examined. According to the World Bank, between 1990 and 2016, the world lost 1.3 million km2 of forests. As per a 2015 study published in Nature, 17 per cent of the Amazonian rainforests in Brazil were destroyed over the past 50 years, and losses continue to be on the rise. The Amazonian rainforests cover a total of 800 million hectares, while the Congolese rainforests cover 300 million hectares, and account for a major part of global forest cover. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), between 1990 and 2015, every year saw 0.20 per cent deforestation of its rainforests, amounting to an eventual loss of 311,000 hectares of forest cover. Is it any surprise that two of the deadliest viruses-Ebola and Zika-emerged in these regions of the world?

Ebola, which first made its appearance in the DRC and South Sudan, was associated with bats and found likelier to occur in Central and West Africa, where deforestation has taken place in recent times. Most of us are aware that the HIV virus spread after Belgian colonizers established large-scale plantations and railroads, and promoted urbanization in Kinshasa-the capital of the DRC. Here, clearing of forests meant illegal felling of trees, increased removal of wood, and poaching for bushmeat, thereby resulting in huge loss of biodiversity.

As per an article published in Science Advances titled, ‘Congo Basin forest loss dominated by increasing smallholder clearing’, ‘annual rates of small-scale clearing for agriculture in primary forests and woodlands doubled between 2000 and 2014, mirroring increased population growth. While smallholder clearing in the DRC was responsible for two-thirds of total forest loss in the basin, selective logging contributed to 10 per cent of the gross disturbance in the region.’ This has translated into habitat loss for the mountain gorilla and the okapi (mountain goat) both of which are native to these parts.

As for the loss of Amazonian rainforests, the first warning came in the 1990s from Amy Vittor, Assistant Professor of Medicine, University of Florida, who, while researching the link between deforestation and spread of malaria in the Peruvian Amazon, found that clearing of forests for agricultural purposes increases sunlight exposure and disrupts small streams. This further creates pools of warm water perfect for mosquito breeding. Since such deforestation activities cause lands to become infertile and farming unsustainable, people abandon such lands, resulting in shrubbery to take over, which is conducive to mosquito breeding. Vittor’s subsequent research proved that the malaria-carrying mosquito species (Anopheles darlingi) in a deforested area of Peru bit 278 times more frequently than the same species in an untouched forest.

The analysis of data compiled from published field studies for 87 mosquito species from 12 countries revealed that about half of the species (52.9 per cent) were associated with deforested habitats. Of these species favoured by deforestation, a much larger percentage (56.5 per cent) are confirmed vectors of human pathogens. Moreover, species that serve as vectors of multiple human pathogens were all favoured by deforestation, including several Anopheles, Aedes, and Culex species.

In one region, after a road was built into a pristine forest and people began clearing the land for agriculture, malaria cases rose from 600 to 120,000 per year (Sources: and

The Zika virus, the cause of birth defects in Brazil, is another example. It emerged in mosquitoes in the Zika forests of Uganda in the 1940s, but there were only a few human cases until 2007. Aedes aegypti, the mosquito species that carries Zika and many other diseases, first spread to Asia where it likely mutated, and consequently gained a foothold in the Brazilian Amazon. The mosquitoes carrying the disease flourished in much warmer places such as Recife, a Zika hotspot and a city that had its hottest three months on record late last year. Deforestation contributed to the worst drought in Brazil, which led to more people storing water in open containers, contributing to a rise in mosquito population. Besides, when temperatures go up, mosquitoes require more blood and they bite more.

Similarly, Ebola first emerged in the DRC in Central Africa, and moved into Sierra Leone and Liberia in West Africa, where deforestation had taken its toll over the years. While the DRC has undergone considerable deforestation over the years, the rates of deforestation have been particularly sharp in Sierra Leone and Liberia, owing to civil war, logging, poaching, and demand for bushmeat.

Liberia, for instance, is a sorry case. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, between 1990 and 2010, Liberia lost an average of 30,000 hectares or 0.61 per cent of forest cover per year. Thus, a total of 12.2 per cent of its forest cover, amounting to 600,000 hectares was lost between 1990 and 2010. Liberia is home to 881 known species of amphibians, birds, mammals, and reptiles (according to figures from the World Conservation Monitoring Centre), of which 0.8 per cent are endemic. Presently, 4.2 per cent of its species remain threatened, despite 1.3 per cent being protected.

In Sierra Leone, a 2015 study titled, ‘War and Deforestation in Sierra Leone’ by Robin Burgess et al. (Source: found that the average secondary forest cover dropped from 47.2 to 37.6 per cent between 1990 and 2000, although the primary forest cover remained constant at 20.3 per cent during the civil war period. Besides, out of a total of 151 chiefdoms, 98 chiefdoms lost cover.

Apart from such pandemics, if we were to look into comparatively smaller outbreaks, as in the case of the Nipah virus, which first made its appearance in Bangladesh, followed by an outbreak leaving many dead in Kerala, a similar trend is noticeable. According to a study titled, ‘Deforestation in Kerala over a quarter century (1993-2017) and the outbreak of Nipah virus: an analysis using remote sensing technology and GIS approach’ by Bedanga Talukdar
et al. (published in March 2019), habitat change negatively impacts ecological integrity and biodiversity by disrupting the food web structure of the ‘flying fox’ (Pteropus).The extraction of food resources results in nutritional and psychological stress for bats, bringing them closer to human habitation. Hence, it increases the chances of transmission of the Nipah virus, with bats’ exposure to food consumed by humans. Satellite data used for the study showed that the four districts in Kerala, namely, Wayanad, Kozhikode, Malappuram, and Kannur, that were ravaged by Nipah in 2018 had undergone a decline of 203,939 hectares of forest cover during1993-2017, which amounted to 27 per cent loss in the affected area.

Habitat Destruction of Natural Predators

Deforestation results in habitat destruction leading to disastrous effects. In the US, for instance, expansion of suburban areas into the forests has driven out opossums, which are natural predators of ticks, leading to the spread of Lyme disease, which first made its appearance in 1975. Similarly, the decline of bird populations in North America due to habitat loss has contributed to the spread of the West Nile virus, the carrier of which are migratory birds.

Wildlife Trade and Demand for Bushmeat

An important aspect of the spread of zoonotic diseases is the demand for and consumption of the meat of wild animals for ‘medicinal’ purposes and as delicacies, especially in Southeast Asian and East Asian countries. (Source: These include seahorses, pangolins, bats, and a plethora of other wild animals.

Illegal wildlife trafficking is currently the fourth most lucrative transnational crime. This industry is valued at up to US$23 billion a year. The United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has described illegal wildlife trafficking as a transnational organized environmental crime which drives species to extinction.

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) entered into force on July 1, 1975. More than 30,000 species of fauna and flora are protected under this Convention. Interestingly, all 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are the signatories.

In 2005, a Regional Action Plan on Trade in Wild Fauna and Flora or ASEAN Wildlife Enforcement Network (ASEAN-WEN) was launched as a regional intergovernmental law-enforcement network to combat illegal international trade in endangered flora and fauna in the region. Additionally, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) also collaborated with TRAFFIC, a wildlife trade monitoring network for conservation of biodiversity and sustainable trade in species. Conserving our biodiversity holds key to the future of humankind. It is about time we all acknowledged this universal truth and came together to defeat the virus. 

Dr Rina Mukherji is an independent journalist with more than 25 years of experience. She holds a doctorate in African Studies and has several media and academic awards to her credit.

© TERI 2020

Nominations open for CSP Today India awards 2013

The inaugural CSP Today India awards ceremony takes place on March 12, and CSP developers, EPCs, suppliers and technology providers can now be nominated.

CSP has made tremendous progress since the announcement of the Jawaharlal Nehru National Solar Mission in 2010. With Phase I projects now drawing closer to completion, the first milestone in India’s CSP learning curve is drawing closer. CSP Today has chosen the next CSP Today India conference (12-13 March, New Delhi) as the time for the industry to reflect upon its progress and celebrate its first achievements.

At the awards ceremony, industry leaders will be recognized for their achievements in one of 4 categories: CSP India Developer Award, CSP India Engineering Performance Award, CSP India Technology and Supplier Award, and the prestigious CSP India Personality of the Year.

Matt Carr, Global Events Director at CSP Today, said at the opening of nominations that “CSP Today are excited to launch these esteemed awards, which will enhance the reputation of their recipients. I am particularly excited to launch the CSP India Personality of the Year award, a distinguished honor for the industry figure deemed worthy by their peers.”

All eyes will be on the CSP Today India 2013 Awards when nomination entry closes on February 4 and the finalists are announced on February 11. The awards are open to all industry stakeholders to nominate until February 4 at or by e-mail to [email protected]

Matt Carr
+44 (0) 20 7375 7248
[email protected]