The “Deadly Dozen”: Climate change, wildlife and disease

In a previous post in this blog, Paula reminded us that destroying the environment is far worse than the collapse of banking and other financial services that we are witnessing worldwide. But climate change, accelerated by the same factors that are contributing to loss of biodiversity, has an uglier face that could lead to further economic disasters.

A report produced by a team from the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Global Health Program and presented at the ongoing IUCN World Conservation Congress in Barcelona, Spain shows that climate change is not just a problem of rising sea level and melting ice-caps. Climate change, according to the report, will also bring with it the plague of emerging infectious diseases such as Lyme disease, yellow fever, plague, avian influenza, Ebola, cholera, and tuberculosis which have crippling economic consequences.

Reportedly, these diseases, which can be transmitted from wildlife to humans, could reach cataclysmic levels as climate change continues to ravage this planet. The WCS has selected 12 out of the 600 ailments that are shared between humans and animals and labeled them the Deadly Dozen because of their immense human health risk. There are 14,000 recorded ailments but the 600 are known to infect both humans and wildlife.

As climate change affects temperature and precipitation patterns and levels, wildlife is being forced to change their migratory patterns, their habitat ranges and other population behaviors. Pathogen carriers, such as ticks and mosquitoes, are also expanding their ranges to areas where the resident animals and humans have not evolved any defense mechanisms against the pathogens attacks. In short, diseases are coming into areas where no one is prepared to deal with them.


Wildlife, in their resident ecosystems, have evolved with their pathogens and therefore have mechanisms to limit disease prevalence such that there are hardly any epidemics. Where the hand of climate change has played havoc to the ecosystem, there may be new pathogens or the old pathogens may be favored by – say – warmer temperatures thus becoming more successful. This could lead to epidemics.

The health experts at WCS believe that programmes to monitor the health of wildlife could act as early warning systems that can help prevent the outbreaks of epidemics among humans. An example is the Global Avian Influenza Network for Surveillance (GAINS) programme which monitors the movement of bird flu through wild bird populations around the world. Congresswoman Rosa L. DeLauro (D-CT3), a champion for the GAINS Program, is quoted in the WCS website saying that “Emerging infectious diseases are a major threat to the health and economic stability of the world.” She adds that “What we’ve learned from WCS and the GAINS Program is that monitoring wildlife populations for potential health threats is essential in our preparedness and prevention strategy and expanding monitoring beyond bird flu to other deadly diseases must be our immediate next step.”

Monitoring wildlife thus becomes important. But to monitor wildlife, such wildlife must exist. An article posted at the National Geographic website by Christine Dell’Amore quotes William Karesh, co-author of the report and vice president of Global Health Programs at the New York-based WCS saying “Without the presence of wildlife, we would be clueless about what’s going on in the environment.”


Wildlife, and its role in the propagation of infectious diseases is already aided by nasty unnatural factors such as poaching and illegal wildlife trade supported by the large wildlife products market in Asia. China’s appetite for Civet-meat for instance, according to Dell’Amore’s article, led to a sudden outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) which reached epidemic levels in 2002.

Dr Richard Leakey, in his statement against proposals to legalize bushmeat, cited the spread of these dangerous diseases as a good reason not to allow the killing and eating of wild animals. It is now even more imperative not to allow bushmeat hunting and trade given that climate change, a much more complex problem, has reared its ugly head into an already deteriorating situation.

This is a two pronged problem now. When bushmeat and climate change combine forces, then woe betide planet earth. Estimates of how much these disease outbreaks can cost have already been done, and it is pretty obvious that they are costlier than the credit crunch and collapsing banks. For instance, WCS says that “avian influenza and several other livestock diseases that have reemerged since the mid-1990s have caused an estimated $100 billion in losses to the global economy.”

Three things come to my mind right now: one, we have to adopt sustainable living as humans to reduce the severity of climate change and its effects; two, now more than ever, we have to safeguard our wildlife for they are our early warning systems against outbreaks of these deadly diseases; and three, bushmeat trade has to come to an end – and there is no question of whether it is legal or illegal.

What is your take on this matter?

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  1. Posted October 11, 2008 at 11:27 pm | Permalink

    Great post Maina. What really bothers me is that everyone agrees that saving tropical wildlife is a global priority but there’s hardly any funding available for this. Europe and USA lost most of their mega fauna a while ago and more is spent there on saving a few endangered species than is spent on saving species that are yet to become endangered. I’m also a bit skeptical about using wildlife as a means of early warning for diseases …there’s hardly wildlife monitoring going on so how would we get that data?

  2. Posted October 14, 2008 at 8:30 am | Permalink

    Frankly, and this is an unpopular opinion, an epidemic among humans may be just what this planet needs to put ecosystems back into balance. It appears to me that we’re again using non-human animals to better our own condition – monitoring them for infectious diseases – instead of realizing and treasuring them for _them_. Why must our respect for non-human animals always involve some benefit to human animals?


  3. Posted October 15, 2008 at 7:55 am | Permalink

    I personally support the conservation of wildlife for wildlife’s sake. But the rest of humanity is quite myopic and they cannot see why we should conserve wildlife without the humans gaining anything (read financially) from it. Humans and animals have equal rights to this earth – in my view – and none should commercialize the other. Those who came up with the rationale to see wildlife as an early warning system must have been driven by desperate observation of human myopia. The only good thing that comes out of this notion – as I see it – is that wildlife health will be monitored and there will be more investment in keeping wildlife wild.

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