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Preventing Future Pandemics & the State of African Conservation


Programming Partner: EarthX


  • According to Jonathan Epstein, certain areas of the world—including parts of East, Central, and West Africa—prove particularly vulnerable to the emergence of new diseases that originate in wildlife reservoirs. In these areas, activities that bring humans and livestock in closer contact with wildlife, including deforestation, agricultural expansion, and bushmeat hunting, are more commonplace; these activities allow pathogens to jump from wildlife hosts to domestic animals and humans. 

“We’re starting to understand that there are certain parts of the world, particularly in Africa, Asia, and the Americas, which are particularly vulnerable to the emergence of new diseases,” Jonathan Epstein

  • Catherine Semcer emphasized the importance of moving away from the colonial model of conservation, which is centered around establishing protected areas based on their aesthetic and recreational value. Instead, we need to move toward an independence-oriented model, which views conservation as a vehicle to deliver prosperity, stability, and security. 
  • Semcer noted that conservation has been excessively dependent on tourism revenue. COVID-19 has devastated the tourism industry; more than 90% of tourism operators in Africa have seen a decline of 75% or more in tourism bookings. With tourism revenues having taken a major hit, protected areas are experiencing severe underfunding. 

“I think there is one key takeaway from the pandemic and it’s that we need to start approaching conservation differently, not just in Africa but around the world. We need to move from a colonial model to an independence model,” Catherine Semcer

  • Vanda Felbab-Brown and Epstein agreed that blanket bans on the wildlife trade could actually prove to be counterproductive. Felbab-Brown explained that, when it comes to zoonotic diseases, there are two main vectors of transmission: the live trade in animals and habitat destruction. While banning the wildlife trade would reduce the former source of transmission, it may end up amplifying the latter.

“The sweet spot for policy lies in building enough economic incentives to reduce dangerous transmission, while preserving habitats as much as possible,” Vanda Felbab-Brown

Key takeaways & next steps:

  • We need to urgently reduce conservation’s reliance on tourism. Negotiating long-term debt-for-nature swaps and integrating conservation efforts into business-community practices are two solutions that the incoming Biden administration should consider. 
  • Completely banning the trade in wildlife proves too simplistic a solution; we need to search for smarter, more sophisticated solutions that take into account the fact that, in numerous communities, the wildlife trade is deeply culturally rooted and proves an important source of livelihood.


Session Speakers