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According to a study, managing peatlands can prevent future pandemics

Peatlands are habitats of terrestrial wetland in which waterlogged conditions prevent the complete decomposition of plant material. They have a wide variety of disease vectors, vertebrate and invertebrate vectors, or carriers, including various vertebrates that are considered to pose a risk of zoonotic disease transmissions, such as bats, rats, pangolins, and primates. These peatlands host a number of disease-spreading hosts; they also harvest flora and fauna, increasing contact with humans.

According to a new report, sustainable management of peatlands, peat-swamp forests found across the tropics, can prevent future pandemics. In the sense of COVID-19, the report titled Tropical peatlands and their conservation are essential and possible future (zoonotic) disease pandemics has been published in the November 17, 2020, PeerJ journal. Examples from around the world were provided in the analysis. As was the most recent outbreak in May 2020, the first recorded case of Ebola in 1976 was from a peatland field, it noted. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, another region with large peatlands, the cradle of the HIV/AIDS pandemic was assumed to be around Kinshasa.

The researchers analyzed current evidence and concluded that high biodiversity in tropical peat-swamp forests, combined with the degradation of habitats and the harvesting of wildlife, created “suitable conditions” for emerging infectious diseases (EIDs) that could leap to humans. The international study team, led by the University of Exeter, included researchers – DR Congo and Peru from countries with large tropical peatlands, including Indonesia.

According to Dr. Mark Harrison, Lead Author, Centre for Ecology and Conservation on Exeter’s Penryn Campus in Cornwall, UK and Borneo Nature Foundation International,” We’re not saying tropical peatlands are unique in this respect – but they are one important habitat where zoonotic diseases (those that jump from animals to humans) could emerge. 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.”

In several countries with large tropical peatland areas, some of which are relatively poorly resourced to tackle pandemics, the study also noted the “high impacts” of COVID-19. The study also addressed large numbers of naturally cave-roosting edible-nest swiftlets being raised in special buildings in many peatland regions, with most nests being exported to China. Many communities in these areas are rural, relatively poor, isolated, have minimal infrastructure, medical facilities that are sub-standard or non-existent, and rely heavily on external trade. “As a result, the direct and indirect impacts of COVID-19 in these communities may be particularly severe,” said Dr. Ifo Suspense, who contributed to the study, from Université Marien, Republic of Congo.

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 EID emergence and severity, thus strengthening arguments for their conservation and restoration.”

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