Battling disease

Why wildlife conservation is good for our collective health

From providing lifesaving drugs to buffering humans from disease, protection of wildlife habitat is key to human well-being.

What if we could reduce diseases and discover life-saving drugs by conserving natural habitat? Would saving ecosystems become more appealing if human health were on the line?

Well, although an underreported dimension of the destruction of wildlife habitat, human health is exactly what is at stake. Habitat destruction has played a role in the emergence of disease organisms that move between humans and other animals, such as Ebola, and even, some scientists argue, in the increase of incidences of Lyme disease. Loss of habitat has also had the unintended consequence of eliminating access to potentially lifesaving drugs by destroying the very places where those drugs originate.

Whether or not people care about nature for its own sake, these implications for human well-being should galvanise them toward habitat and wildlife conservation, and elevate conservation to the same level of importance as things such as cancer or stem cell research or efforts to eradicate malaria or HIV.

Disease emergence

Undisturbed, wild animals and their habitats can serve as a barrier preventing the spillover of emerging infectious diseases – EIDs – from animals to humans. Because the diseases and the animals have evolved together, the diseases have little to no effect on those animals. When transmitted to humans, however, those pathogens can result in EIDs. It has been estimated that 60% of recent EIDs have been zoonoses, and close to three-quarters of these originated in wildlife. The clearing of undisturbed habitat to pave way for human activities such as agriculture has created blurred boundaries between wild and domestic animals, helping to facilitate the jump to humans.

This is what happened in the cases of Nipah and Hendra viruses, among others. The clearing of forests in Southeast Asia and Australia, respectively, led certain types of flying fox fruit bats to move closer to farm animals (pigs in the case of Nipah; horses in the case of Hendra). The farm animals ate virus-ridden bat saliva or urine, became ill, and transmitted the disease to humans who came into contact with them. Neither virus was new, but both were kept from humans until habitat destruction facilitated the jump.

Zoonotic diseases exact an enormous human toll – identified diseases account for at least 2.7 million deaths and 2.5 billion cases of human sickness annually. In the developing world, zoonotic EIDs can exacerbate other public health challenges, such as lack of infrastructure and malnutrition resulting in increased bushmeat consumption, which can in turn introduce new varieties of EIDs. And zoonotic EIDs can have huge economic and social implications as well, such as loss of employment and business – familiar outcomes during outbreaks. For example, pig farmers in Malaysia incurred a loss of $244 million during a Nipah outbreak in 1998 and 1999 due to mass culling of pigs.

Almost half of human medicines come directly or indirectly from the natural world, even as less than 10 percent of all of the world’s biodiversity has been evaluated for potential drugs.

Surveillance, detection and responses to these outbreaks are unfortunately low in developing countries, which are often particularly vulnerable to the emergence of EIDs due to their proximity to areas of high biodiversity. As they develop, those countries and their people face higher exposure to zoonotic pathogens. Meanwhile, population density and increased global travel means transmission of these diseases will be effective, even in the developed world.

The tremendous harm zoonotic EIDs wreak globally points to a powerful need to improve our understanding of the role of wildlife ecology and the wildlife-livestock interface in their emergence. Increasing research in this area would offer tremendous benefit by improving our ability to predict which regions are most at risk and to prepare and respond to these threats. The recent surges in EIDs across the world underscore the importance of protecting wildlife habitat, both with speed and in scale.

Nature’s medicine

And then there’s medication: Almost half of human medicines come directly or indirectly from the natural world, even as less than 10% of all of the world’s biodiversity has been evaluated for potential drugs. Many lifesaving drugs, including some recent anti-cancer drugs, have originated in nature.

Yet all of this progress is likely just scratching the surface of nature’s incredible potential to yield health-promoting substances. New species are continually being found. Discoveries of bacteria that survive in the unlikeliest of places have opened possibilities for even more new drug discoveries. And scientists have recently begun tapping into potential drug discoveries from other members of the microbial world, too.

Meanwhile, 60% of people worldwide depend almost exclusively on plants for their primary medication. Animals are also used in parts of the developing world for traditional medicines. Yet, we are allowing the natural world to disappear without fully understanding what will be lost – or knowing at all, since we can only assume that some species are becoming extinct before humans even know about them. To protect these current and future sources of medicines, we need to protect the nature that provides them.

Studying and conserving nature is as important as any other human health initiative, and the health benefits of conservation need to be included alongside other discussions about saving nature. It is time to make the case that wildlife science and conservation are relevant to everyone’s life. Too many people’s health will be in jeopardy if we don’t.

Rashmi Bhat is a wildlife researcher in and participant in the Ensia Mentor Program. This article was first published in Ensia.

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“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

Like the long-settled German expats in India, the German airline, Lufthansa, too has incorporated some quintessential aspects of Indian culture in its service. Recognising the centuries-old cultural affinity between the two countries, Lufthansa now provides a rich experience of Indian hospitality to all flyers on board its flights to and from India. You can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalized by Lufthansa to the extent that they are More Indian Than You Think. To experience Lufthansa’s hospitality on your next trip abroad, click here.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.