Restore Ecosystems To Prevent Pandemics

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Pandemics do not appear suddenly. Each pandemic begins from a single point of infection, illness in humans or non-human animals

Nandkumar M Kamat

Ecological integrity of natural ecosystems is an important factor to prevent emergence of new diseases and future pandemics. The Goa government did something on June 5 which nobody thought was possible. The damaged sand dunes of the beautiful beach at Cavelloshim, Salcete were restored using the simple but smart and intelligent method invented by ex NIO Oceanographer, Antonio Mascarenhas.

Mascarenhas had spent his entire career at NIO researching, advocating and taking up issues of coastal zone and sand dune conservation, protection and sustainable management. His experiment to create artificial sand dunes on Miramar beach was successful. He had simulated the aeolian or the wind influenced natural process which takes centuries to create a few metres tall natural stable sand dune but at Miramar by raising a bamboo barricade to trap the sand he had reduced the time needed to create a miniature dune. At Cavelloshim the government successfully restored the degraded sand dunes and took an important step towards coastal ecosystem restoration.

The theme for this year’s World Environment Day (WED) June 5, 2021, was ‘Reimagine. Recreate. Restore.’ The theme was chosen to mark the beginning of the United Nations Decade on Ecosystem Restoration launched from this year. Because of the pandemic situation most of the activities to celebrate the WED in 2020 and current year were conducted online. The theme this year was truly relevant to prevent any new pandemics. Pandemics do not appear suddenly. Each pandemic begins from a single point of infection, illness in humans or non-human animals. Then it results in an outbreak as infections spread. Then it becomes an epidemic and finally when it spreads over huge areas and impacts a large population then it is declared as a pandemic. It had taken the World Health Organization, WHO more than three months to wait and watch after the first case of novel Coronavirus infection before COVID-19 was designated and officially declared as a pandemic.

The debate on the natural or manmade origin of SARS-COV-2 causing Covid-19 has now become profoundly serious but all the scientists know that we are actually playing with fire by interfering too much in the intact landscapes, natural ecosystems and in delicate food webs. The distance between Shimoga, Karnataka and Goa across the Western Ghats is several hundred kilometres. There are natural ecological barriers to prevent spread of wild animal viruses from such a place to Goa. So how then Kyasnur Forest Disease Virus pr KFDV reached Goa from Shimoga and infected hundreds of people in more than six talukas and killed many of them?. KFDV is a tick-borne virus. If these ticks are restricted to forest floors there is no problem of anyone getting infected. But once humans or monkeys come in direct contact with these ticks then KFDV causes the deadly hemorrhagic fever. The relationship between KFDV, ticks and monkeys has been established. All the wild natural ecosystems harbour wild species which carry viruses with them. Thousands of wild strains of Coronaviruses have been isolated from bats. So it should be clear to everyone here in Goa that they have no business interfering with natural ecosystems, food webs and members of the food chain in forests and need to leave wild flying mammalian species like bats undisturbed. We have millions of frugivores and insectivorous fruit bats in Goa. But nobody has studied the presence of viruses associated with them.

Similarly we have no knowledge of dangerous viruses associated with dead organic matter in forests and grasslands and controlled by termites which decompose such matter. So any interference in the termite based natural organic matter biodegradation system means accidental release of the viruses which could initiate infections of unidentified diseases. A single termite hill on average mineralizes more than 200-400 kilograms of dead organic matter per year or more than 10-20 metric tons per hectare per year. Trillions of deadly viruses are destroyed in this biodegradative process. This is possible due to an obligate exosymbiont  fungus called Termitomyces cultivated in underground fungus gardens. So every termite hill becomes a natural bioreactor and a natural solid waste composting station. As the worker termites bring in dead organic material inside for making the fungus gardens billions of viruses transported from forest floors and grasslands get eliminated and degraded. KFDV possibly spread in Goa because people created a lot of disturbance in this Termite hill based natural biodegradation process. Therefore, the most important task for the state of Goa is to restore such damaged natural ecosystems and create conditions to keep the wild viruses and other human and animal pathogens under control.

There is a lot of research available now on the origin of Human Immunodeficiency Virus-HIV which leads to AIDS and Ebola which causes deadly hemorrhagic fever. Both had been isolated, restricted, and quarantined by nature for millions of years. HIV had never existed on Earth but evolved from its original progenitor- SIV or Simian Immunodeficiency Virus also known as African Green Monkey virus. Both HIV and SIV have nine genes but one single gene in SIV called CPZ mutated and produced HIV. This mutation did not occur overnight but took many years to develop. Therefore, people in Goa who are constantly fragmenting the landscapes, hillsides, riverbanks, islands, patches of mangroves, forests and natural grasslands won’t immediately see such mutations occurring suddenly. There had been legends in Sattari taluka about how entire villages like Kumtol, Karanzol had to be abandoned due to some strange illnesses. It is exceedingly difficult sometimes to pinpoint the source of a new viral, bacterial and fungal disease unless one looks carefully at the sequence of events leading to its emergence.

Historical and ecological epidemiology shows us that it is better to leave the microbiological evils in forests undisturbed. Humans have no right to interfere with such locked-up reservoirs of dreadful diseases. On the contrary, it is consistent with the theme of WED-2021-’Reimagine. Recreate. Restore’, ecosystems in Goa need to be systematically reimagined, recreated and restored. Some practical projects in Goa could be following the methods used at Cavelloshim , the reimagining of the extinct coastal sand dunes from Keri to Cavelloshim and recreating and restoring these fragile natural coastal defences. Then recreation and restoration of natural lakes, ponds, streams, springs, and fountains. Already exotic species of predatory fish are multiplying in Goa’s freshwater and estuarine ecosystems and these can pass on new diseases to local fish. A viral disease can wipe out Goa’s shellfish diversity.

Bringing back original coastal sand dunes to life with original vegetation like Spinifex and Ipomoea would conserve and protect the beaches. Restoration of freshwater and wetland ecosystems would boost resilience against floods and pollutants. Protection of the termite ecosystem in forests and grasslands would prevent emergence of the new zoonotic  diseases. Only such restored healthy and resilient  ecosystems would prevent emergence of new diseases and new pandemics.