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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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.