Conserving tropical peatlands ‘is vital to protecting humans from infectious disease’

An international study team led by the University of Exeter suggests protecting such areas could even reduce the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic

Conserving tropical peatlands could reduce the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and protect humans from new diseases in the future.

That’s the suggestion from an international study team led by the University of Exeter and made up of researchers from countries including Indonesia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Peru – they believe high levels of biodiversity in tropical peat-swamp forests mean harmful diseases could be passed on to humans during habitat destruction and wildlife harvesting.

It notes HIV/AIDS and one of the first cases of Ebola both originated in areas with extensive peatlands and highlights that major wildfires in peatland areas cause massive air pollution, increasing the threat to human health from respiratory diseases like COVID-19.

Dr Muhammad Ali Imron, from University Gadjah Mada in Indonesia, said: “In terms of the impacts on peatlands themselves, we reveal that conservation, research and training are all being affected by the pandemic, which may result in increased habitat encroachment, wildlife harvesting and fires started to clear vegetation”.

The study concludes: “Sustainable management of tropical peatlands and their wildlife is important for mitigating impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, and reducing the potential for future zoonotic emerging infectious disease emergence and severity, thus strengthening arguments for their conservation and restoration.”

Lead Author Dr Mark Harrison, of the Centre for Ecology and Conservation on Exeter’s Penryn Campus in Cornwall, UK and Borneo Nature Foundation International, said: “We’re not saying tropical peatlands are unique in this respect – but they are one important habitat where zoonotic diseases could emerge,” said

“Tropical peat-swamp forests are rich in fauna and flora, including numerous vertebrates known to represent zoonotic emerging infectious disease risk, such as bats, rodents, pangolins and primates.

“Exploitation and fragmentation of these habitats, as well as peat wildfires (ultimately driven by human activity) and wildlife harvesting bring more and more people into close contact with peatland biodiversity, increasing the potential for zoonotic disease transmission.

“Our review shows that protecting tropical peatlands isn’t therefore just about wildlife and carbon emissions – it’s also important for human health.”

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